What is Acupuncture ?

Acupuncture is an ancient form of Chinese medicine involving the insertion of solid filiform acupuncture needles into the skin at specific points on the body to achieve a therapeutic effect.  No drug is injected.  The needles alone create the beneficial effects of acupuncture.

Acupuncture is used to encourage natural healing, improve mood and energy, reduce or relieve pain and improve function of affected areas of the body.  It is safe and effective and is often successfully used as an alternative to medications or even surgery.  Relief is often obtained with acupuncture when traditional medical therapy has failed.

Acupuncture needles are solid, usually stainless steel (they may also be gold or silver), and measure from 13-70 mm, although longer reusable ones up to about 150 mm in length can be purchased.  The needles are very fine, flexible and rounded by sharp at the tip.  They are ‘atraumatic‘, meaning that they do not have a cutting edge like a hypodermic needle, which slices through tissue.  Their design allows acupuncture needles to slide smoothly through tissues and makes them unlikely to cause bleeding or damage to underlying structures.

Acupuncture points (also referred to as ‘acupoints‘) are places on the skin that have a lower resistance to the passage of electricity than the surrounding skin and are part of network of points that were mapped centuries ago by the Chinese.  Most are found along ‘meridians‘, or’channels‘ that are believed to be the pathways by which energy or ‘Qi‘ (pronounced ‘Chee’), flows through the body.   Acupoints are located either by identifying anatomical landmarks or by the classical method (for example: “the point where the middle finger touches th thigh when standing at attention”).

A dull, heavy or aching feeling often occurs when the needle is correctly placed.  This is referred to as ‘de Qi‘ and is considered by some traditional acupuncturists to be necessary for acupuncture to be effective.  Pain relief can often be obtained without provoking the de Qi response.  Recent fMRI studies indicate that there is a difference in the response of the brain to needling with and without the de Qi sensation.

The needles are left in place for 15-30 minutes, and the practitioner may manipulate the needles to strengthen or reduce the flow of Qi.  Lifting, twisting and rotating are some of the needling techniques a practitioner may use.

Other Related Techniques:

  • Electro-acupuncture:  Needles ae electrically stimulated by various frequencies and voltages by attachment to a battery-powered machine using wires with small clips on the ends.  Low frequency stimulation (2-4 Hz) results in a slow onset of pain relief that outlasts the treatment for hours to days and is often cumulative by repeating treatments.  High frequency stimulation (80-200 Hz) results in a pain-blocking effect that is fast in onset but does not usually outlast the stimulation.
  • Moxibustion:  Sometimes the needles are heated by attaching and burning a piece of rolled up Artemisia Vulgaris (mugwort) on the needle handle or by holding a cigar-shaped piece of tightly-packed ‘smokeless’ moxa near the handles of the needles.  This technique is known as moxibustion or ‘moxa‘.  In traditional acupuncture there are indications for the use of moxa when there is a ‘cold syndrome’ or for moving energy.
  • Auricular Acupuncture:  The ear is a ‘microsystem’, meaning that there is a point on the ear that represents every part of the body.  The development of a topographical approach to the use of ear points for treating systemically began with Dr. Paul Nogier in Lyon, France in the 1950’s.  His interest began with the observation of several individuals from Africa who had scars on their external ears in the same location, an area that was used to treat sciatic pain. 
  • Acupressure:  A technique involving pressure on acupuncture points using the thumbs or fingers, capable of giving relief of symptoms.



 Acupuncture originated in China at least 2500 hundred years ago and spread to neighbouring Asian countries including Japan, Vietnam and Korea by about 500 CE, and finally to Europe in the 16th century.  In spite of its spread to Europe so long ago, most North Americans were unaware of acupuncture until President Nixon made his famous trip to China in 1971. 

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