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What is acupuncture and how does it work?

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

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Acupuncture has evolved from the ancient art of placing needles into special locations on the body to alleviate pain, improve recovery rates and increase resistance to disease. It has been practiced by the Chinese and other Eastern cultures for thousands of years.

Acupuncture treatment should always follow an accurate diagnosis of the problem and a full appraisal of all treatment options. In many cases acupuncture is best used in conjunction with conventional medicine however, in some situations, it can be used as a sole treatment.

Adding acupuncture to a treatment plan can help to reduce the patient’s requirements for medications which may have undesirable side effects. 

Most importantly, acupuncture is extremely safe when practiced correctly and is well accepted by the majority of animals.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Chinese approach to disease is very holistic. Emotional, hereditary and environmental factors are considered to be important elements in disease patterns. The philosophy and aim of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is to restore equilibrium between physical, emotional and spiritual factors – thus restoring and maintaining health. Treatment involves using needles in specific acupuncture points (sometimes in combination with herbal therapy) to address imbalances in Yin and Yang as well as improving the flow of Qi and blood.

Western Scientific Acupuncture

Scientific research into acupuncture has made enormous progress over the past 40 years and now explains much of acupuncture’s actions which had previously only been understood in the ancient concepts of health described in Traditional Chinese Medicine. This has brought about the greater recognition and acceptance of acupuncture within the scientific community.

We have known about the effects on pain relief and the endogenous opioid responses to acupuncture for many decades, but more recent sophisticated studies have revealed effects on the hypothalamus, immune system and autonomic nervous system - all systems designed to maintain a normal physiological balance in the body. This has opened the understanding of its use in a wider range of internal medical disease conditions.

The Yin and Yang balance paradigm can now be explained by the correlations with the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system and this helps bring the holistic view of health back into focus.

Combined Approach

By combining these two approaches, acupuncture may be particularly effective in the treatment of chronic disease states – either to complement conventional medical or surgical treatments or when conventional medicine fails.

When can it be useful?

Acupuncture is also often used to treat musculoskeletal conditions (of the bones and muscles) and pain conditions, including:

  • neck pain

  • osteoarthritis (joint pain)

  • muscular or ligament strain

  • dental pain

  • postoperative pain

It can also be useful in spinal pain (neuropathic pain, e.g. from a disc protrusion or collapse) and chronic medical conditions when conventional medicines have failed or are inadequate to control the patient's symptoms. These conditions are often where the body's own regulatory systems (known as homeostatic mechanisms) are working poorly, perhaps due to stress, or other ongoing illness.

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