The Common Misconceptions of Acupuncture

The common misconceptions of acupuncture cloud public perception and deter patients - this article seeks to dispel them.

Since its rise in popularity in the West began a few decades ago, acupuncture has steadily become more sought after by people from all walks of life from professional athletes to office workers. Despite this rise and the growing body of supportive research which has ensued, many misconceptions about the efficacy, methodology and benefits of acupuncture persist, clouding public perception and deterring patients from exploring its therapeutic potential. One of the most common misconceptions is that acupuncture is a curative treatment and that one session will immediately solve the issues one sought treatment for. If we look at the scientific foundation around acupuncture research and the emphasis these studies place on the critical role of consistency in treatment, we see the opposite is true. Like psychotherapy or physical therapy, the benefits of acupuncture, from pain management to stress reduction to enhancing overall well-being and vitality, require a routine and reach their full potential when integrated regularly into one’s wellness regimen.(6)

Most Common Myths about Acupuncture

Beyond the misconception that acupuncture is a miracle procedure capable of remedying one’s symptoms in a single session, there are several other common myths. These include the belief that acupuncture conflicts with other treatments, has side effects, involves needles that contain medicine, can only treat pain, and leads to dependency on the procedure once started. None of these ideas are accurate. In fact, they contradict the decades of research performed on acupuncture since its rise in popularity.

The idea that acupuncture is a one-time cure for any ailment or illness is rooted in misunderstanding and approaches acupuncture from an archaic point-of-view. Acupuncture is not a curative treatment, but rather a form of physiotherapy which works overtime to remedy both symptoms and injuries by helping one’s body balance the hormones and chemicals responsible for healing, in essence reteaching the body to heal itself. This process requires routine and consistency to be effective – generally, the amount of time it takes for one’s body to reach a state of dysfunction is relative to the time it will take to get better as well. This is because the effects of acupuncture – especially the analgesic effect on pain and inflammation and its ability to alter the way pain is registered and perceived in the body – are cumulative.(6,9)

Many worry acupuncture may interfere with medication, physical therapy or other forms of treatment – this is also false. Acupuncture, as recommended by the National Health Institute, is an excellent standalone treatment which also works in congruence with many other forms of therapy.(7,8) Acupuncture works without the introduction of any substances into the body, making it a unique and complementary therapy that can be used alongside many other treatments without the risk of drug interactions as well. In this spirit, the approach your acupuncturist uses may change based on the injury being treated and its corresponding symptoms. They may also prescribe additional modalities of TCM, or suggest lifestyle changes and other therapies to aid in achieving one’s treatment goals, further disproving the claim acupuncture interferes with other treatments. For example, an athlete who has been treated for an extended period of time for carpal tunnel or tennis elbow may need less frequent sessions that target very specific areas, whereas a recent back injury patient who has just begun therapy, and is experiencing symptoms that extend beyond the location of their injury, may require a more comprehensive approach. This could include cupping, IASTM, exercise, or alternative forms of physical therapy in addition to acupuncture.

The idea that acupuncture may interfere with medication is also based on the misconception that acupuncture needles contain, or are coated, with medicine. Again, this idea could not be further from the truth and is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how acupuncture works. In reality, acupuncture operates on an entirely different paradigm of healing, one that leverages the body’s innate healing capabilities rather than introducing external medicinal substances. During an acupuncture session, needles are inserted at specific points on the body which trigger these healing capabilities, stimulating the circulatory, nervous, muscular and immune systems. By activating these, acupuncture encourages the body to initiate its own healing response. For example the insertion of needles triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killers, cortisol and cytokines, which reduce inflammation, and increases blood flow to affected areas, which can help to further alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and promote tissue healing as well.(10) Furthermore, acupuncture can have a positive influence on the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes.(9) This can help reduce stress, enhance relaxation, and improve overall health.

In terms of side effects, acupuncture does not have any. Many seek acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine because they lack the intense side effects typically associated with western medicine, pharmaceuticals and surgery. Acupuncture may leave one feeling sore or tired in a fashion similar to exercise. The notion that acupuncture has intense or prohibitive side effects is simply not true. The belief that one can develop a dependence on acupuncture is also false. The goal of acupuncture is to make the patient independent from treatment while continuing to feel the benefits of acupuncture’s cumulative effect. Depending on the individual, their condition and their treatment goals, this can mean follow-ups every few days, every week, monthly, or even less frequent.

Can Acupuncture Treat More than Pain?

Acupuncture and the Autonomic Nervous System

A prevalent misconception, many believe acupuncture can only treat pain. This narrow view overlooks the broad spectrum of conditions acupuncture has been shown to benefit. While pain management is a significant and well-documented aspect of acupuncture therapy, its applications extend far beyond. Research has demonstrated acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating a variety of conditions including mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, as well as allergies.

Acupuncture’s effects on the autonomic nervous system enable it to combat depression, anxiety and insomnia. In a study recently completed in 2021, acupuncture was found to have had a significant impact on Generalized Anxiety Disorder (also known as GAD), reducing rates of depression, anxiety and other correlating symptoms in most patients.(11) Acupuncture was shown to be especially effective in combating situational anxiety in particular, and was also more effective in treating those who suffer from GAD specifically versus those who experience more fleeting, less frequent states of anxiety. Moreover, a study completed in 2009 showed acupuncture to be more effective than western medication in treating insomnia over long periods of time. The study showed that those treated with acupuncture had an increased number of total sleep duration versus those who took medication.(12)

Acupuncture also offers a unique and effective approach to managing allergies by targeting the underlying imbalances within the body that contribute to allergic reactions. By regulating the immune system and addressing imbalances within the body caused by its response to external irritants and allergens, acupuncture can significantly reduce allergy symptoms. The cytokines acupuncture causes the body to produce not only reduce inflammation, they also reduce allergic rhinitis and bronchial asthma symptoms brought on by allergies.(13) Additionally, acupuncture can help improve overall well-being and reduce stress, which is often a contributing factor to the severity of allergic reactions. With regular treatments, acupuncture can relieve the immediate symptoms of allergies and also address root causes, offering a long-term solution that does not involve reliance on medication.

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