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What's the point of acupuncture and acupressure?

Alice,

What do you know about the medical uses of acupuncture and acupressure? Have either of these practices been helpful in treating any medical conditions? Thank you for any information you can provide me.

— Pondering pins and points

Dear Pondering pins and points,

Acupuncture and acupressure are Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practices that are used to balance a person’s life force, or qi (pronounced “chee”). When a person’s qi is unbalanced, or when a person experiences qi deficiency, it can lead to symptoms such as general fatigue, and contribute to illness. Acupuncture and acupressure are said to help increase circulation through specific pathways in the body, which is thought to improve the flow of energy, however, there’s a pointed difference between these treatments. In acupuncture, a hair-thin needle is inserted into areas along the body’s energy pathways and then stimulated by gently twirling the needle, or activating it with a mild electrical current. In acupressure, pressure is placed on particular areas of the body called acupoints. These acupoints are stimulated and energy is redirected through the use of pressure applied with the fingers or small objects, such as seeds, plastic beads, or metal balls. Acupuncture and acupressure have been observed to offer relief of certain symptoms, including pain from a number of conditions, though it’s unclear the mechanisms through which the relief is provided. Both of these treatments can have different effects on each individual, therefore, results cannot be guaranteed for everyone.

Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years, but research on this form of treatment has only been conducted relatively recently. Studies have shown short-term improvements in pain relief when acupuncture is used either solely, or in conjunction with other traditional pain relief strategies. There is some evidence indicating that acupuncture may be beneficial for those suffering from lower back pain, headaches, neck pain, osteoarthritis, menstrual cramps and other conditions. In fact, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provided a positive recommendation for use of acupuncture for non-specific low back pain. Some research has also found that acupuncture can be effective at reducing nausea and vomiting following surgery or chemotherapy. As this treatment method becomes more widely available, researchers are also studying its use as a possible treatment for addiction. Acupuncture is a relatively low-risk practice — the most common side effects include soreness, minor bleeding, and bruising. Treatments typically last between 30- to minutes, and most patients commonly receive six to eight treatments in total. The cost of an acupuncture session depends on your insurance plan, your location, and your provider’s rates. Many providers offer treatment packages that may include a certain number of sessions at a discounted rate. The average cost of a single acupuncture session is roughly 85 dollars. It's worth noting that there is inconsistent clinical guidance on the use of acupuncture, therefore insurers may use the inconsistency to guide coverage decisions.

Acupressure is also a TCM technique that aims to increase energy flow and improve blood circulation through the use of deep pressure or massage. It’s believed that adding pressure to what are referred to as meridians or acupoints on the body initiates its ability to relax muscles and heal. Acupressure practitioners usually use the following techniques: kneading large muscle groups, rubbing to stimulate blood flow, massaging pressure points, applying various degrees of pressure several seconds at specific points, and stretching and joint rotations. Acupressure is also considered a less-invasive method compared to acupuncture. Individuals who have consistently used this treatment have reported improved symptoms and decreased frequency of symptoms in many of the conditions that have demonstrated benefit from acupuncture such as low back pain. Studies have also shown that acupressure may improve fatigue, insomnia, and even provide some relief from feelings of anxiety.

Research on acupressure and acupuncture continues to grow, though further clinical evidence on their application is needed. Western practitioners have widely accepted acupuncture as a therapeutic method for effective treatment of various conditions, and they’re increasingly viewing acupressure a complementary therapy as the treatment continues to gain recognition. While Western medicine, which relies more on pharmacotherapy, is the most common type of health care delivery in many parts of the world, Traditional Chinese Medicine offers several benefits. Western medicine aims to identify the cause of symptoms using diagnostic techniques such as imaging scans and treats diagnoses with medications or surgical procedures. Contrastingly, Traditional Chinese Medicine aims to treat the body as a whole, recognizing that the body is an interconnected system. Based on the symptoms, TCM practitioners apply holistic therapies which target the root cause of the illness and restore balance. TCM can also be tailored to each patient, offering a hybrid of TCM therapies such as  acupuncture and acupressure, moxibustion, herbal medicine and nutraceutical medicine.

If you’re thinking about using acupressure or acupuncture as a method of treatment, it’s best to talk with your health care provider to discuss whether this is an appropriate option for you. If you decide to try acupuncture, it’s recommended that you choose a licensed acupuncturist to perform the procedure. Because needles are inserted into the skin, it’s possible to get infections, even hepatitis and HIV, from improperly cleaned needles that are reused. As a result, disposable acupuncture needles are now widely used. For more information on acupuncture, acupressure, and other forms of alternative medicine, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is a great source of information.

Hopefully this helped point you in the right direction in your search for more on these treatment methods!

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Last updated Aug 26, 2022
Originally published Dec 01, 2000

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