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The benefits and science of acupuncture

May 21, 2019 | UCI Health
woman getting acupunture

Acupuncture — one of the oldest forms of medical treatment in continuous use in Asia for more than 5,000 years — has gained general acceptance in the West in recent decades.

Most Westerners know about its success in treating pain, but Dr. Sheng Li, a UCI Health specialist in acupuncture at the UCI Health Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, says it’s effective for a wide range of diseases.

The World Health Organization recognizes the effectiveness of acupuncture for more than 60 conditions from high blood pressure to infertility, the common cold to depression, and headaches to irritable bowel syndrome.

Acupuncture is not for a life-threatening emergency,” Li says. “Other than that, it can help lots of conditions. Acupuncture is not targeting the disease or pathogen. Instead, it adjusts the functions of the human body itself, so the body can heal.”

How does acupuncture help?

Developed thousands of years ago before the advent of scientific research, the theory behind acupuncture is that qi — or life energy — flows along pathways throughout the body. Disruptions can cause disease.

Inserting needles in some of the 365 accessible acupuncture points can bring the energy flow back into balance. This theory is used by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to try to explain how acupuncture works. Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine is built on thousands of years’ practical experience.

Acupuncture, Li explains, is just one part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is designed to promote wellness and treat disease. TCM includes:

  • Chinese herbal medicine
  • TuiNa/massage
  • Tai chi/qigong movement
  • Dietary therapy
  • Acupuncture

The current studies of acupuncture suggest that acupuncture can help with:

  • Blood circulation
  • Metabolism
  • Gastrointestinal motility
  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Immune function 

Acupuncture also produces endorphins, block pain signals going to the brain and reduces the occurence of muscle spasms.

How is acupuncture performed?

The very first acupuncture needles were made of sharpened, polished stone back in the stone age. Today, acupuncturists employ single-use stainless steel needles as thin as a strand of hair.

Practitioners first palpate certain areas of the body to determine which ones need needles. Then, care is taken to help patients relax so that treatment will be most effective.

The needles are not designed to penetrate arteries or veins — think of them like the shape of a pine needle. Once inserted into muscles, they are stimulated by movement or an electronic pulse device.

“Most people don’t feel anything when they’re inserted,” Li says. “With the stimulation, patients might feel a heaviness, something like a muscle ache, but not pain.”

The needles typically stay in place from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on the patient’s condition. They may remain longer for chronic conditions.

The science behind acupuncture

“Studies show that during acupuncture, our brains begin to release chemicals, such as endorphins (natural pain killers),” says Li. “Acupuncture also has an anti-inflammatory effect and can adjust the immune system.”

Everyone responds differently to treatment. It may take a few or as many as 10 sessions to eliminate symptoms. Once symptoms are alleviated, no further sessions are needed. Chronic conditions may require an increased number of treatments.

Finding a practitioner

“If you don’t see results after several treatments, try another acupuncturist, since they may use different techniques,” he says.

Li, a California-licensed acupuncturist with a degree in Oriental Medicine, perform acupuncture at UCI Health— Yorba Linda Multispecialty.

Li recommends choosing a skilled practitioner who has been in practice for many years, since experience is very important in Chinese medicine and acupuncture. He also suggests seeking an acupuncturist with expertise in a specific condition for which you require treatment.

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