Every year Kalani, my 62-year-old patient from Honolulu, comes to see me for a series of acupuncture treatments to help get her knees in tiptop shape for her annual ski vacation.
She has osteoarthritis — an arthritic condition caused by wear and tear of the cartilage in her joints — and the acupuncture helps reduce her pain and increase her mobility.
Acupuncture is a medical procedure that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. It’s based on the theory that qi (energy) flows through meridians (energy highways) in your body. When your qi is balanced, you’re healthy in body, mind and spirit. When it’s imbalanced, illness can result. By inserting acupuncture needles into specific acupuncture points, your qi can be rebalanced.
Acupuncture is used throughout the world and the World Health Organization lists more than 40 conditions — from digestive disorders and cataracts to menopausal symptoms — as eligible for acupuncture treatment.
How does acupuncture work? There are many theories but, to date, no one has been able to explain exactly what happens when needles are inserted into acupuncture points.
One theory is that acupuncture points are conductors of electromagnetic signals that can increase release of the body’s pain-relieving chemicals, such as endorphins or opoids. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, reports that "Some studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones in a good way." The NIH concludes that acupuncture is effective for treating nausea caused by anesthesia and chemotherapy and for dental pain after surgery. It’s useful for treating addiction, headaches, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromaylgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma and for assisting in stroke rehabilitation.
To be licensed in Hawai’i, acupuncturists are required to complete a formal course of study, clinical training of 1,500 hours and 12 months of a clinical internship. It’s felt that anything less would be inadequate to guarantee public safety and efficacy of treatment. Acupuncturists in Hawai’i must also pass a national certifying exam.
An acupuncturist’s years of training include the study of traditional Chinese medicine. A clear understanding of how the five elements in traditional Chinese medicine — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — interact is critical to a patient’s diagnosis and treatment. Practitioners learn the exact location of 356 acupuncture points, 12 main meridians and eight other meridians. They know the angle and depth of insertion of the acupuncture needle, which varies depending on the point. They master therapeutic indication for each acupuncture point and which specific combinations can best be used to readjust the flow of qi.
Can medical doctors, naturopathic physicians and chiropractors practice acupuncture? Yes, but only if they have completed the same training and certifying examinations as licensed acupuncturists. Acupuncturists eligible to practice in Hawai’i have the letters L.Ac. (Licensed Acupuncturist) or D.Ac. (Doctor of Acupuncture) after their names.
What should you expect when you see an acupuncturist? During your initial interview, you’ll be asked to provide a history of your illness and details regarding your lifestyle and dietary habits. A physical exam, including an assessment of your pulse and tongue, follows. Your acupuncturist looks at you as a whole person, taking note of how you speak, the tone of your voice, your complexion and personality. Once a diagnosis has been made, you’ll be given dietary and lifestyle recommendations to help balance your qi. Chinese herbal medicines may be prescribed and, typically, a series of four to six acupuncture treatments once or twice a week is recommended.
Does acupuncture hurt? Many people say they can’t feel the very fine needles being inserted; others say the sensation is like a mosquito bite. Almost everyone says that once the needles are in, they don’t feel them at all. Acupuncture treatments usually last from 20 to 45 minutes. After the treatment most people feel as if they’ve just awakened from a peaceful nap.
Kalani’s acupuncture visits make a significant difference in the amount of fun she can have skiing on her vacation. Other people use acupuncture to help them through a health crisis because it’s a nontoxic, safe method of treatment that’s effective when done by a trained practitioner.
Article was originally printed in the Honolulu Advertiser, honoluluadvertiser.com.