Plenty of research shows acupuncture to be effective, especially for pain relief and chronic pain.
But like any large, complex topic, there are plenty of studies in which acupuncture does not pass muster. My experience with it over the last 15 years has been very positive, although with some patients we need to try a few different styles of acupuncture before we find the one that works best for them.
Our culture is slow to embrace acupuncture; we are too steeped in the chemical approach. To make matters worse, acupuncture is based on the idea of chi, or life force, and chi is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. How do you measure someone’s life force? We don’t have that kind of technology yet.
Today’s technology does offer some support for the original acupuncture theories. A basic premise is that the flow of chi is similar to electricity, and points may get out of balance and interfere with chi flow. In 1950, a Japanese medical doctor and acupuncturist named Dr. Yoshio Nakatani took advantage of new technology that allowed him to test very small electric currents. He tested acupoints for “conductance,” which is the amount of resistance the skin has to a small electric current. He was surprised to find huge differences in the conductance of the skin, especially at points that corresponded to traditional acupuncture points. There was some correlation with the diagnosis; patients with kidney disease were more likely to show disturbances in the points along the kidney points, supporting the idea of a “kidney meridian” composed of several points related to that organ. These electrical differences tended to normalize as the patient improved.
Dr. Nakatani found that points could show either increased or reduced conductivity, and also noticed that the points that were too conductive were often tender. This correlates nicely with the original acupuncture theories of excess and deficient energy states, with the excess points expected to be tender to the touch. One indication for choosing a certain point for needling is tenderness. In my experience, the tenderness is usually gone when the needle is removed, meaning the chi flow has been restored.
Many patients are nervous about starting acupuncture. It is new to them, and is quite different from the health care they are used to. But for most patients, it is nearly painless, with only mild sensations at the point of needle insertion. It is common for a patient to ask, “Is that all? I thought it would be worse than that.”
There are also alternatives to needles. In our office, we also use microcurrent, where a very small electric current is delivered to the point without breaking the skin at all. This approach tends to have a very fast response; sometimes immediate changes are seen, especially with muscle spasm. Because the currents are very low — millionths of an amp — most patients don’t even feel the treatment. But that is what makes it so effective. Rather than flooding the system with electricity, microcurrent is in the range that naturally occurs in the body.
There is some modern technological support for the practice of acupuncture, along with some research that it is effective. But to me, that information pales in comparison to the simple fact that for many people, it works. As an added benefit, it is very safe. I personally don’t intend to wait until we have the means to thoroughly test all aspects of acupuncture — there is plenty enough evidence for me.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.