You’re not alone if you’re wondering- is there something in the needles? The short answer to your question is no, there isn’t anything in the needles. Our needles are solid which means they do not contain any medication or chemicals. That’s really cool because acupuncture works with your body instead of doing something to your body. Acupuncture is a gentle and natural process and optimal results occur over time. There are little to no side effects and its affordable! When you see a doctor, they give you medication or perform surgery which is using something from the outside to help you get better. With acupuncture, we are helping your body to heal itself and utilize that natural healing power in a more efficient and effective way. For example, this is why many times people are able to cut back on their medications because their body will need less to achieve the same result. You would of course do this under the guidance of your doctor.
So how exactly does acupuncture work? Acupuncture works in 3 primary ways.
The first way is that it switches your body from the fight or flight mode into rest and digest mode. When our bodies are under stress, there is a reaction inside our bodies which prepares us for immediate survival. Our muscles tense up, our heart beat quickens and we go on high alert. This is useful when we have to get out of a scary situation- we are ready to fight or run away. However when we have chronic, ongoing stress our bodies can get stuck in this fight or flight mode which makes it difficult for us to relax, sleep or heal ourselves. We become irritable and our muscles become tight and tense. Acupuncture shuts off this stress response and switches us into rest and digest mode which means that we can sleep, relax, digest our food normally and focus on healing.
The second way that acupuncture works is that specific acupuncture locations, or acupuncture points, have specific functions. For example we have points that focus on particular body parts. There is a point on the ankle which addresses the lower back and there is a point on the knee that treats tendons. There are points for pain, to reduce inflammation, promote sleep, even boost the immune system. Your acupuncturist will choose the best combination of points to suit your treatment plan and health goals.
The third way that acupuncture works is that it increases neuroplasticity- or the ability of our brains to change. Our understanding of how the human brain works has increased dramatically - we now understand the human brain has the ability to change, much like a muscle. The more we engage in certain behaviors, for example exercise, the more connections are made around this behavior, creating a habit or a routine. This can also work in negative ways for example when people have chronic pain it creates a feedback loop in the brain to wire the brain to experience more pain. Acupuncture helps to break these negative loops in the brain that chronic pain or trauma can create.
Thank you so much for reading! We love answering your questions.
Prescription pain medication “numbs” you out. Acupuncture works differently. Acupuncture is more like a crockpot than a microwave - it works slowly through and through rather than heating you up quick and leaving hot spots in the middle. Sometimes people are unsure if acupuncture is working or not. Frequently when a person has a chronic pain condition they shut off the connection to their body as a survival mechanism so it can be hard to know! Here’s how to tell the acupuncture is working.
Are you taking less pain medication?
This is a big one. If you are able to drop a dose, wait longer between doses or forget to take it those are all good signs! You may still be feeling pain however needing less or a less strong medication is a sign your body is healing.
Do you notice a change in the location, frequency and/or intensity of the pain?
Did the area of the pain get smaller? If your whole back hurt and now its just your upper back that is a sign you are getting better. Do you get headaches twice a week instead of daily? That is a very good sign. Has the overall pain level decreased? Again, good news!
Do you feel relief right after the treatment but then it “wears off”?
This is a good sign. Keep coming back! As you get more acupuncture your body will become more stable and the relief will last longer and longer. This is why we recommend coming more often in the beginning of treatment - an ideal minimum is twice a week for moderate to severe conditions. Your body is in a habit right now and it’s going to take some time for it to learn how to do something new. Stick with it, it’s working!
Are you able to do more?
Maybe you’re able to forget about your pain sometimes. Maybe simple things like grocery shopping or going down the stairs is easier. Can you walk a little farther before having to sit down? Is getting dressed easier? Can you get down on the floor and play with your grandkids and be able to get back up again? Is your pain not interfering with your life as much? Acupuncture is working. Keep going!
Do you feel better overall?
Are you smiling a little bit more? Feel a little more hopeful? Is your anxiety or brain fog better? Living with chronic pain can be exhausting and depressing - sometimes an improved mood is the first sign acupuncture is working. So if you’re feeling a little less grumpy - keep coming back!
Acupuncture is a great tool to manage chronic pain because it not only helps to reduce pain, it also helps with energy level, mood, sleep and stress which can worsen chronic pain conditions. It also has no side effects and feels pretty amazing! A person’s tolerance to pain decreases when they aren’t getting enough sleep and are stressed out for example. Life seems more overwhelming and we have less ability to manage it when we aren’t feeling well. Our bodymindspirit is interconnected, what affects one area of us, affects all.
You walk into the treatment room and see everyone else either asleep with their mouths open or peaceful and still with their eyes closed, maybe listening to their own music on their headphones. They look so relaxed! You can barely sit still in the chair for 30 minutes and definitely DO NOT feel like sleeping. Hell, you can barely sleep at night or sit still to watch tv. There is laundry to be folded, dishes to be washed, homework to be done, emails to be answered, groceries to be shopped for, etc etc etc etc. It doesn't end. Who has time to relax? That's for lazy people anyway. Hey you, I totally get it because this is kind of me.
Sometimes people have a hard time relaxing while they get acupuncture treatment. First of all, it's OK. I promise. The acupuncture is still working. Whether you fall asleep or not is zero indication as to efficacy of the treatment. You are not failing at acupuncture. You do not suck at acupuncture. You are not the 1 special person it's not working for while it works for everyone else. Your body is just stuck in a habit of go-go-go and its going to take a minute for your body to do something different. And that is OK.
Sometimes sitting still is scary. That's OK too. You are not alone. You are safe here. And we have tissues if you need them.
Here is my advice. Put your phone away. Put the book or magazine away. These things just re-stimulate your brain and our goal is to shut your brain off. Don't keep turning it back on. Let your mind wander. Some people find it helpful to focus on their breathing. You can do that but you don't have to. You can't fail at this. The success is in taking the time for yourself to coax your bodymindspirit to do something its not used to. Changing a habit is hard. It takes many intentional acts before momentum kicks in and the cycle starts to build on itself and take over and become a routine to maintain. This is why it takes "30 days to form a habit". Us human beings are highly adaptable but it takes a little time for the adaptation to happen and this is a good thing because if it didn't we would be all over the place.
Give it time. Have patience with yourself. I talk to my kids all the time about working their "patience muscle" when they want me to do the thing RIGHT NOW, usually when I'm driving, wiping the other child's butt or I'm in the shower. Are we wired this way or is it a result of our society of instant gratification? I don't know but the point is that no one wants to wait. Our bodies and our lives don't have any light switches though. You can't turn on the switch to lose 50lbs, get pregnant, go to sleep, meet your soulmate, do 25 pull ups or memorize a piano concerto. Be easy with yourself and your body. You are not a failure, you're a work in progress. What counts is regular practice, regular treatment, being pointed in the general direction of where you want to go and making tiny steps to get there or at least closer. You might even have some fun and a few surprises along the way.
Progress might be small, regular and incremental or there might be nothing for a while and then suddenly everything at once. Everyone is different. Context is important too. If you are going through major life stuff it might be unrealistic to expect to be completely zen right in the middle of it all- especially in the beginning. But being able to take a couple of deep breaths, peace out in a chair for 30 minutes with needles once or twice a week and finding the time to take a quick walk can make all the difference. This is the balm to keep you going, to get you through with as few scrapes as possible. You can do it, I have faith in you. Just keep at it. It works if you work it, so work it, you're worth it. <3
"But how, mommy, how?" This is a question I hear at home a lot. Closely followed by "but why, mommy, why??" I'm going to answer the how here. As in, how, mommy, how does acupuncture work?
I graduated acupuncture school in 2007, so this is my 13th year of practice. My understanding as to how acupuncture works exactly has evolved over those years. In school we learned that energy, qi, moves in pathways around the body on highways called meridians. If qi flows the wrong way, gets constricted or blocked this leads to symptoms and disease. Acupuncture gets the qi flowing correctly and in adequate amounts in the right direction. While this is an accurate explanation from an acupuncture textbook standpoint, I don't think it really gets to what's happening in the human body.
In starting my 13th year of practice I have come to understand that acupuncture works in two main ways. The first way that acupuncture works is by shutting off the stress response in the body and the second is in the points affecting specific areas of the body through mirroring and fractals.
When humans are under stress there is a physiological response in the body. Stress is of course a broad term and it affects people in varying degrees. Stress can come from trauma, dealing with chronic health problems, financial, legal, family, job problems. All kinds of problems, even being rushed, driving in traffic, having a disagreement with someone. Most people have stress. When under stress, the human body goes into "fight-or-flight" mode which is a series of physiological changes driven by hormones in the body. Heart rate increases, blood rushes to the muscles, pupils dilate - to prepare you for an acute survival situation. Highly useful when you need to save your own life, not so useful long term. People can get stuck in fight or flight mode when levels of stress hormones are high in their bodies due to increased stress.
Acupuncture shuts off that stress response, switching the body into "rest and digest" mode. This is when the body is relaxed, heart rate slows, muscles relax and the digestive system functions normally again. This is also when the body heals itself, which primarily happens when a person is sleeping. Sleep is critical to the healing process in the body. This also explains why many people fall asleep during acupuncture treatment.
Besides symptom relief, another common thing people notice as a result of long term acupuncture treatment is that they get perspective. They are able to look at situations and problems in their lives without the same emotional entanglement. They are able to get done what they need to get done in an easier way. When you aren't frantic and feeling crazed you make better decisions. You make calmer decisions. Somehow things don't seem as bad and therefore they aren't as bad. There is hope. A sense that somehow, all of this is going to work out. You got this! This is what I believe is the true gem of what acupuncture does.
Sometimes when people initially get treatment its hard for them to sit still and do nothing. That is ok. Just stick with it! Keep coming back! I plan to address this in a future blog post.
The second way that acupuncture works is by the individual points affecting specific areas of the body through mirroring and fractals (continuously repeating patterns). This explains how I can treat back pain all day long and never stick a needle in someone's back. Everything in our bodies is all connected. There are continuously repeating patterns all over the body. The entire body can be treated from the ear, for example, just picture an upside down baby on top of the ear and you have a rough idea of where body parts are located. You can treat wrist pain for example by using points around the elbow (mirror the arm on top of itself) or ankle (the wrist of the leg). Some points address the opposite side of the body, others on the same side. Some points treat parts of the body everywhere- for example there is a point on the knee which treats tendons, everywhere in the body. I'll be needling that point on the knee to help someone with tendonitis located anywhere in their body. There are also specific points that alleviate anxiety, allergies, upset stomach and headaches. (Unsure what acupuncture can help with?)
Think of acupuncture as a part of your routine to keep your life going optimally. It's a low -tech, inexpensive and safe tool in the box to maximize quality of life. We have our sliding scale and flexible scheduling system to make getting acupuncture as easy as possible.
Meaghan Massella, M.Ac, L.Ac, Dipl. Ac (NCCAOM) is an acupuncturist, business owner and mother of 2.