Should I try acupuncture?

Q: What is it?

A: Acupuncture is a healing art believed to have originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. 

It’s based on an understanding of health that’s somewhat different than that of Western (allopathic) medicine.  

Broadly, in acupuncture, if you’re a healthy person, you’ll have a healthy body.

In Western medicine, if you have a healthy body, you’ll be a healthy person. 

This distinction is important because it translates into radically different approaches to how to achieve health. 

In acupuncture, there’s an explicit understanding of how the mind, body and spirit interact and addressing all three is essential for creating the optimum environment for healing. In Western medicine, the primary focus is on correcting the dysfunctions of the body, and the roles that the mind and spirit play in health is less defined.

Acupuncture is based on the anatomy of the flow of qi or chi. Webster defines qi as “the vital energy that is held to animate the body internally.” 

It’s the life force. Qi flows in distinct patterns called meridians. One can think of the meridians as the highways and roads through which qi travels through the body, nourishing it with vitality. The root of illness is when qi is not flowing smoothly, correctly or is depleted. 

Acupuncture is the healing art of using very fine needles in points along the meridians to facilitate the correct flow of qi. 

There are some 2,000 acupuncture points and each is distinct due to its location and meridian connections. Combining different points allows the acupuncturist to achieve different effects and allows for a variety of fine-tuned treatments.

Q: Can it be used during pregnancy?

A: Pregnancy is a time when the general rule is to avoid any unnecessary chemical exposures, including medicines. This fact makes acupuncture an especially attractive therapy during this time. 

Classically, acupuncture has been used in pregnancy and there’s data to support it’s helpful for many conditions. Moreover, acupuncture is extremely safe: The estim-
ated risk for significant adverse effects are rarer than 1 in 60,000, making it a reasonable alternative for many conditions. 

There’s evidence that acupuncture may be helpful for pelvic and low back pain in pregnancy, depression, infertility, labor pain, cervical ripening, shortening labor and turning a breech baby. 

For conditions not directly related to pregnancy, data suggest acupuncture may have utility for treating headaches/migraines, neck and back pain, mood (premenstrual syndrome, depression), dental pain, osteoarthritis of the knee, seasonal allergies, TMJ pain, post-operative nausea/vomiting and addiction.

Q: What’s involved in a treatment?

A: During acupuncture, very fine needles are inserted into the body and left in place for
10 to 60 minutes. While the placement of the needles or the activation of qi can sometimes be mildly uncomfortable, most people find treatments to be relaxing overall.  

Sometimes the needles are stimulated manually or with electricity, which creates a tapping or buzzing in the needles. Although most people notice improvement sooner, I recommend four to six weekly treatments before assessing for efficacy. After this time, treatment intervals are determined by how a person is responding.  

Q: How well does it work?

A: There’s been much research into acupuncture. However, a clear Western-medicine explanation of how it works remains elusive. 

There’s good evidence, however, that acupuncture affects many important neurotransmitters and hormones in the body — and also affects blood flow to the central nervous system. Depending on the criteria used, the specific ailments for which acupuncture has been “proven”
to be effective will vary. 

Dr. Tara Gustilo is the chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis. She’s also an acupuncturist who treats a variety of conditions, including chronic and acute pain, mood disorders, fatigue and fibromyalgia. She’s also a North American Menopause Society certified practitioner.