More Myths About Acupuncture

Last month I wrote about some of the common myths surrounding acupuncture and Chinese medicine.  In that article I threatened to take on more myths and misunderstandings about this medicine, so here goes:

Myth:  Acupuncture works only because of the placebo effect. Actually, there’s a lot more going on during acupuncture than just the placebo effect.  Scientific studies have documented the effects of acupuncture on brain chemistry.  When an acupuncture needle is inserted, it stimulates your peripheral nerves (those far from your brain), which sends impulses to your brain to release endorphins.  Endorphins are chemicals that act as your body’s natural pain relievers.  Those endorphins work much like the drugs morphine and codeine, but are completely natural and more effective in reducing pain.  Endorphins can also have the effect of producing euphoric feelings, modulating appetite, and releasing sex hormones.  In addition, at the site where the needle was inserted, researchers have found that white blood cell count increases up to 40%.

Many detractors of acupuncture say that the calm setting, empathetic practitioners, and relaxing nature of acupuncture cause patients to think they feel better after a treatment (like that’s a bad thing).  I would agree that these elements absolutely help someone who is sick, worried, and in pain, especially if you compare an acupuncture treatment to some of the painful, impersonal,  and invasive treatments associated with Western medicine.  However, the science is there as well – acupuncture works by causing physiologic changes in your body.

Myth:  Acupuncture is sketchy.  Isn’t it performed by aging hippies and tie dyed new agers?  Uh, you actually need to be licensed by your state’s Board of Medical Examiners to perform acupuncture.  Licensed acupuncturists complete a three year accredited master’s program, take a national exam, and are licensed by their state.  Chiropractors and physicians who perform acupuncture must also take some additional coursework in acupuncture in order to perform it on patients.  As for the aging hippie thing, if they’ve taken the coursework (which is grueling!), put in their time in the clinic, and passed the exams, you might find one or two practicing acupuncture.

Myth:  Poking needles in people is the only thing an acupuncturist does.  Actually, acupuncture is only one modality under the large umbrella of Chinese medicine.  Many acupuncturists are also nationally certified Chinese herbalists.  Beyond herbs and acupuncture, a practitioner may use food therapy, heat, cupping (a kind of suction), different kinds of bodywork, Qi Gong (like Tai Qi), and lifestyle changes to help the healing process.

Myth:  My doctor will think I’m crazy for trying acupuncture.  Currently, many large hospitals offer acupuncture to their patients.  Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have conducted research documenting the benefits of acupuncture for arthritis. Many doctors are strong supporters of using acupuncture as a complementary therapy for their patients. On a personal level, I have a number of doctors and other western health care providers who frequently refer patients to me.  I believe that many western doctors embrace acupuncture, especially when other treatments have failed.  Admittedly, there are certain medical conditions that should absolutely be treated through western medicine, but for many conditions, acupuncture is an appropriate treatment.  If your doctor gives you negative feedback about acupuncture, chances are that they’ve never even tried it.

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