Acu-What? Acupuncture and Acupressure 101
Have you ever wondered what the big fuss is regarding acupuncture? It is time to learn the basics. Let’s start with some background information on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
What is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?
- TCM grew from Confucianism and Daoist philosophies, and it continues to thrive in China to this day.
- Ancient TCM treatments such as herbal medicine, acupuncture and tai chi provide a powerful foundation and exert a commanding influence on the culture and practice of medicine in Asia.
- Ancient Chinese philosophical theories abound throughout TCM. Although the origin of three main concepts – qi, yin-yang and the five elements – is not medical, the application of these theories forms the backbone of TCM.
- Qi: A substance, constantly moving, that is found in all aspects of the body and maintains life activities – the basic energy unit of life. Distribution of qi across the body (via meridians) gives rise to different physiological connections that enable functionality of the whole body.
- Yin-yang: One of the most well known ancient Chinese theories. As Zhang Jingyue, a famous traditional medicine expert during the Ming Dynasty, stated, “Although medicine is complicated, it can be summed up in one word, namely, yin-yang.” Yin and yang represent opposites in unity. Achieving perfect balance or healthy equilibrium is determined by the relationship between the two. Yin-yang theory’s vital role in TCM becomes apparent with the notion that an unequal dynamic balance of opposites causes disease. Treatment of disease via TCM focuses on restoring a healthy equilibrium.
- The Five Elements: Five basic Chinese characters, known as 火 (huo – fire), 水 (shui – water), 土 (tu – earth), 木 (mu – wood), and 金 (jin – metal). The theory of 五行 (wuxing) refers to five materials or substances: fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. They represent a classification system by grouping together items that share similar properties. With relation to the human body and medicine, organs in the body belong to one of the five elements. The elements interact by restricting, over-restricting and counter-restricting each other. Thus, clinical application can be derived by once again maintaining a healthy equilibrium based on the associations of the five elements.
What is acupuncture?
- This is a technique used in TCM that has been practiced for more than 3,000 years.
- It involves insertion and manipulation of thin needles into targeted points in the body for stimulation.
- These targeted points of insertion are specific meridians – natural pathways in the body or invisible energy connections that allow Qi to flow freely in one large network.
- Blockage of flow along meridians can lead to illness and pain. Stimulation with an acupuncture needle helps restore normal flow.
- Studies have shown it can be helpful with many medical conditions including chronic low-back pain, neck pain, and knee pain.
- It has been theorized that acupuncture promotes the release of endorphins, natural or endogenous chemicals in the body that bind to opioid receptors, inhibiting pain pathways.
What is acupressure?
- This concept is similar to acupuncture, but it’s practiced without the needles.
- Specific acupoints can also be stimulated with directed firm pressure.
What about safety?
- Although rare complications have been reported, acupuncture and acupressure are overwhelming safe.
- Nonsterile needles are the main culprit of complications.
- Always seek out a licensed professional to avoid unsafe practices.
- A majority of states rely on the non-profit governing body, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), to license acupuncture professionals.
Acupuncture and acupressure are forms of alternative medicine used to treat disease, maintain body equilibrium, and ease tension by improving “qi” or energy flow throughout the body. If practiced by licensed professionals, these ancient treatment forms are generally safe and offer a multitude of healing benefits that complement more traditional approaches to managing pain.
Lucas First, M.D.
Resident Physician, PGY-3
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
NewYork-Presbyterian, The University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell