Acupuncture, one of the most commonly used “alternative medical” procedures in the world, originated in China over 2000 years ago. Acupuncture can help alleviate pain through the insertion of a series of fine needles into the body. Each needle stimulates one of 2000 acupoints–points, or nerve centers, that control energy flow and are linked to specific body parts or internal organs. The Chinese believe that acupuncture “un-blocks” one’s energy or “qi.” By inserting needles into the appropriate acupoint (the one connected to a painful internal organ or other anatomical structure), acupuncture “decongests” blockages in the channels within the body. The link from acupoints to internal organs or body parts explains how needle insertions–which only penetrate a little way under the skin–can have a potentially immense impact on pain management.
Clinical studies have begun to prove that acupuncture can work, but research has not yet definitively explained how. One theory posits that acupuncture stimulates endorphins. The fine needles effectively release endorphins in the body, creating a “feel good” sensation in the area being treated. Another theory suggests that the needles make small tugs on the connective tissue. This stimulus sends out mechanical signals to neighboring cells, including those of the nervous system, which controls the sensations of pain.
Acupuncture can be an effective pain management technique for back pain or muscle spasms along the spine and affected extremities. Acupuncture can successfully address these symptoms regardless of the underlying cause of the pain or spasms.
Since acupuncture involves only fine needle insertions, patients may be interested in trying acupuncture as a “low cost” option (where “cost” refers to the amount of pain and procedural difficulty). While side effects such as minor bleeding, bruising, or light-headedness do exist, they occur rarely. For those patients who find acupuncture effective, a 15-30 minute treatment can bring marked relief of symptoms.
Because the exact clinical mechanism behind acupuncture remains unknown, it is difficult to say what results are “typical.” Research does show, however, that some people respond well to acupuncture, which can alleviate back or leg pain and reduce muscle aches and spasms. Since acupuncture is only minimally invasive, many people decide to at least try it as a treatment option.