What is Acupuncture All About?
Hi everyone! Amber and Maryann were kind enough to invite me to write a guest blog post for them talking to their readers about Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, and how this medicine can be helpful in treating pain conditions. My name is Dr. Sarah Poulin, DACM, L.Ac., DIpl.OM, and I am a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine and a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist with a private practice in Middlebury. I’ve been practicing locally since 2012, and I am also on the faculty for the doctorate of acupuncture and Chinese medicine program at my alma mater, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is a complete system of medicine hat has evolved over thousands of years to treat almost any medical condition that you can think of. Acupuncture, although it is just one part of the whole TCM system, is the most well-known modality and it’s what I will be focusing on in this post.
In TCM, our goal of treatment is always to restore a state of balance to the body. This is done by influencing the movement of qi in the body. Qi (pronounced “chee”) can be a difficult concept to translate, but it often is translated as vital energy or life force. Essentially, qi helps us be who we are and allows for all of our many bodily functions to work as they should. In TCM, it is thought that qi moves through fourteen meridians or channels, which are like invisible highways that transport qi to every aspect of the body. However, due to injuries, lifestyle, diet, weather, and emotional factors, the flow of qi in the channels can become altered. There can be a stagnation of qi in one area, too much or too little qi in other areas, or problems with moving qi from one area of the body to another. Accordingly, TCM practitioners use a variety of tools to help restore a normal flow of qi to the body. This can include things like acupuncture, herbal formulas, and a form of Chinese medical massage called “tui na.”
With acupuncture, we insert sterile, single-use needles at specific locations along the channels called acupuncture points. These acupuncture points are thought to be areas where we can easily influence qi. There are hundreds of acupuncture points all over the body, but we don’t use them all at once, so don’t worry that you’ll look like a porcupine! I usually use about 20-30 needles a treatment. The needles are very thin- they are actually so thin that about 18 of them can fit inside the tip of a hypodermic needle, which is the kind of needle used to draw blood. Once the needles are in, you relax for about 15-20 minutes (a lot of people even fall asleep during this part), then the needles are removed and disposed of safely.
With pain conditions, the idea in TCM is that there is a stagnation of qi that has occurred. It can be helpful to picture this like a stream where there has been a branch that has fallen and blocked the path of the water. There’s an area where there’s too much water building up behind the branch and an area after the branch where there’s not enough water flowing- the normal course of the stream has been altered. When we treat pain conditions, we choose acupuncture points to remove the stagnation and let the qi flow smoothly though the channels again- essentially, we remove the branch from the stream and let the water flow as it should.
Now I know much of what I have described here can sound a little odd! I completely understand that, so I’d also like to give you a little bit of the scientific explanation behind why acupuncture works. The good thing is that there is new research that is coming out all of the time that is helping us to find scientific evidence for some of the ways in which acupuncture and Chinese medicine are working. We now know that acupuncture has an effect both on the local areas where we are inserting the needles as well as on the brain. When we insert the acupuncture needles, we cause the body to release natural anti-inflammatories and painkillers, which have an effect on the local tissue to help treat painful conditions. We are also able to have an effect on the brain, balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. There is also some evidence that acupuncture can have an effect on the autonomic nervous system, which is a largely unconscious regulatory system in our body that is responsible for keeping many of our systems (such as circulation, digestion, and respiration) functioning.
Pain issues (especially low back pain and upper back/neck pain) are definitely the most common things I see in my office, but TCM and acupuncture can actually treat a wide variety of medical issues. I also have a special interest in working with women’s health and fertility issues, as well as with headaches, digestive issues, and stress-related conditions. TCM and acupuncture can also be used to treat seasonal allergies, menstrual problems, anxiety and depression, fatigue, sinus issues, insomnia, and much more.
Acupuncture is a very safe treatment, especially when done by someone who has the proper training and experience. I am very much a believer in a team approach to healthcare, which means that I want to work with your doctors and other healthcare providers (like physical therapists, mental health professionals, and others) to ensure that our patients are getting a holistic and patient-centered care in which all of their healthcare needs are being met.