Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Jul

Dear Mark: Acupuncture

With all the recent focus on alternative and complementary therapies, the number of people using acupuncture and the variety of conditions it’s used for are quickly expanding in the U.S. A good number of MDA readers use it, I know, and quite a few have asked about it over the years. A few I know visit a practitioner regularly and maintain that the routine figures strongly in their ongoing good health. Some reject it outright as a medical practice, while still others look to it as a last resort for a specific (and often acute) problem. Finally, some have considered using acupuncture but remain on the fence, like reader Abe:

Dear Mark,

Going fully Primal several months ago has helped me lose all the weight I needed to, and I’m in good shape since changing my workout when I began reading your blog a year and a half ago. The problem is, I still have some chronic back pain (although it’s not as bad as it used to be). I feel like it’s the last thing holding me back. The usual stuff (chiropractic, etc.) just hasn’t done it for me. What do you think about acupuncture? I’ve heard good things but don’t know if it’s just the power of suggestion. Just thought I’d get your take. Thanks!

Over the years I’ve approached alternative treatments like acupuncture with the same healthy dose of skepticism that I bring to just about every health question, issue and ideology. I read up and usually reserve judgment as I check the research over time. Though I relish listening to folks’ personal experiences, I always come back to the larger frames of quality medical study and evolutionary logic.

Developed over thousands of years, acupuncture centers on the (pre-scientific) Traditional Chinese Medicine theory of energy (qi) and its free or stagnant travel among specified channels in the body. It was (and still is by some) thought that when energy is blocked in its movement throughout the various meridians, disease or disorder ensues. Acupuncture (and acupressure) attempt to stimulate and release these blockages to allow energy to move freely and the body to naturally correct itself. The practitioner inserts the needles in therapeutic points along relevant meridians. For added impact, he/she often twists the needles or even hooks them up to a machine that will deliver continuous electric stimulation through the needles, an adaptation that is rejected by some traditionalists but has been shown to be more effective in some research.

Although there are plenty of studies on both sides, so to speak, recent research tends to increasingly support the effectiveness of the therapy. A recent study at the University of York, actually, made significant strides in possibly explaining the physiological mechanism behind acupuncture. The researchers found evidence of acupuncture’s neural impact. The treatment induced “deqi” sensations (achieved when the practitioner allegedly inserts and manipulates the needle correctly to reach the qi) in research subjects, which scans showed deactivated pain sensors in their brains. Nonetheless, controversy does continue particularly for acupuncture’s effectiveness for certain conditions. Some research shows acupressure to be as effective as acupuncture. The most accepted conditions for acupuncture/acupressure treatment include low back pain, (there you go, Abe!), migraines, depression, anxiety, chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia and arthritis. Acupuncture is also commonly used for nausea and chronic pain associated with cancer and cancer treatment.

It’s important, of course, to find a reputable practitioner with superb training. Physicians and medical facilities that support the use of complementary medicine should be able to offer thoughtful referrals, but check out organizations like NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) for lists of licensed acupuncturists in your area. Ask plenty of questions about the practitioner’s experience and specialty, and don’t be shy about inquiring about references or affiliations with area clinics or other professional groups.

Finally, I’d recommend bringing an open mind and reasonable expectations to your treatment. (This point goes with any kind of therapy – conventional or alternative.) As mentioned, I think the overall research supports acupuncture’s genuine utility in some cases. Nonetheless, I’d venture to say that a negative mindset can sabotage a legitimate treatment as much as a hopeful outlook can boost a placebo’s effect. (Maybe that’s why my own experiences with acupuncture have been, shall we say, less than satisfying?) Although many people experience some relief from pain, for example, right away, acupuncture’s effect can take a while to settle in. In most situations, successive treatments offer compounded effect. In other words, it’s worth sticking with for at least a short while to judge the overall influence acupuncture therapy can have over your pain or specific medical condition.

Fellow Grokkers, have you used acupuncture? What say you? Share your thoughts and stories with Abe and others in the MDA group. As always, thanks for the great questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Dr. John Sarno M.D. of NYU has a theory that has born itself out over his 40 years of practice: That most chronic back pain is actually initiated by something very akin to the fight-or-fight response, and that it’s a mind/body process that can be reversed simply by learning how the process works. People (myself included) have actually cured their pain just by reading the information in his books. The best one is “Healing Back Pain”. It’s at most bookstores and has been in print since 1986.

    NOTE: he’s NOT saying: “the pain is in your head”.

    Joe wrote on July 13th, 2010
  2. Esther Gokhale wrote an incredible book on back pain, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, that very much fits with the Primal lifestyle. It’s based on the premise that we no longer learn proper alignment from our “tribe.” The simple changes she recommends changed my life.

    That being said, acupuncture has been very helpful for other ailments.

    Kelly wrote on July 14th, 2010
  3. Tell Abe that what he needs is to find a clinic or gym that has a MedX Lumbar Extension machine. I’m very serious about this. I’ve been suffering from sometimes debilitating chronic lower back pain for I think 5 or 6 years now, and I’ve just started using one of these machines at the training place I go to and am already noticing improvement. I can summarize the history of the machine and the reason why it works:

    Exercise pioneer Arthur Jones (founder of the approach to exercise science known as High-Intensity Training as well as the two companies Nautilus and MedX) invented the MedX Lumbar Extension machine in the 1980s. His theory was that lower back pain is caused by chronic under-use of erector spinae muscles in the lumbar region, and that it could be cured by strengthening these muscles. What he found, however, is that the ONLY way to meaningfully strengthening these muscles is to isolate them by completely constraining the hips from rotating. Most exercises that people do that they THINK work their lower back actually don’t work at it all, because the hip extensors kick in and do the work instead. The protocol for the machine only requires 1 set down to failure (takes about 2-5 minutes) once per week.

    This protocol on the MedX Lumbar Extension machine has been scientifically proven to CURE chronic lower back pain in 80% of patients. The other 20% are people who actually have spinal pathologies of some sort that require surgery. For that 80%, this machine is literally the only way to cure chronic lower back pain by attacking the problem’s actual root cause. Things like acupuncture, or tylenol, or massage therapy, or icy-hot, don’t actually CURE the problem, they simply provide a temporary REMEDY for the symptoms.

    Mark, I really enjoy reading your blog and I plan on buying your book as soon as I’m done reading “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” but if you are going to discuss chronic lower back pain then you MUST do some research on the MedX Lumbar Extension machine.

    Arthur Jones’ original writings on the topic can be found at, I think the ones on the lower back are mostly under “The Future of Exercise.” Also, the MedX company website (Jones doesn’t own it anymore, he died in August 2008) is

    Mark, if you did some research on this topic, it would be a great thing for you to do a post on!

    Luke wrote on July 14th, 2010
  4. I started getting Acup. over 12 yrs ago after I graduated from massage school. We learned about the meridians in Shiatsu class, which was part of my schooling. I was amazed at the information and how well one can know the body, by learning this stuff. So I decided the get Acupuncture when I graduated and the changes that took place in my life were amazing. I’ve gone to a total of 4 different Acupunct-urists all together. I’m getting treated for hot flashes this time around. I’ve had 4 treatments and I’ve noticed a difference already. He says I’ll need 6. So I will see. But I love, love, love Acupuncture. When I first met this Acupuncturist he was diagnosing me looking at my ears. Can you believe it? He was right on.. Spleen and Kidney deficiency. And he diagnosed my daughter. It was too funny. The knowledge they can aquire about the body is phenominal by looking at the ear, tongue and pulses. They know more about the body than ANY doctor I’ve ever gone to. They are my healthcare practitioner along with my nutritionist. Thanks, Nancy

    Nancy wrote on July 14th, 2010
  5. Acupressure is even better for tension and stress related problems than acupuncture and is much better for anyone who does not like needles. Acupressure is like getting the best of both acupuncture and massage as we are using deep (but gentle) pressure on the points. NCCAOM lists bodyworkers also on their website–or look at or for qualified practitioners. Pressure/massage and herbs are the oldest forms of healing–and I beleive the most effective! I would also second the recomendation for Esther Gokhales program as acupressure or acupuncture can’t fix the problem if there is poor posture–but it can reduce the pain and tension making it easier to follow the needed posture changes.

    Debrah wrote on July 14th, 2010
  6. I also forgot to mention in my last post that acupressure/Asian Bodywork is much less expensive than acupuncture.

    Debrah wrote on July 14th, 2010
  7. This gives a good overview on acupuncture and the fact that it is mostly placebo.

    John wrote on July 15th, 2010
  8. Unfortunately, I have not had good results with acupuncture. I tried acupuncture for my very frequent migraines (4-5 times per week). I went to a Chinese man who was recommended by a friend. I immediately got relief for a week, followed by a slow return to the former frequency. I began to feel very uncomfortable mentally and physically from all those needles stuck in my head. I then tried an American acupunturist, who used cupping on my back. Glass cups in which a flame applied creates a vacuum, are placed on the skin. Several cups are used, and they are moved forcefully over the back. This resulted in a severe neck strain. I do not intend to try again.

    Maxine wrote on July 15th, 2010
  9. I used acupuncture for a couple of years with success to balance my hormones after pregnancy and also to recover from surgery. I feel it really helped me at the time but now that I have discovered the Primal Blueprint, some of my symptoms could have been corrected with the PB lifestyle. Thanks for the post.

    Carrol wrote on July 15th, 2010
  10. Acupuncture is just the placebo effect in disguise:

    Maxx wrote on July 16th, 2010
  11. Several well-controlled studies have demonstrated that acupuncture is distinguishable from placebo. That’s no longer controversial in the scientific literature.

    Chris Kresser wrote on July 16th, 2010
  12. I also have had amazing results with Esther Gokale’s technique and book. I had chronic back pain for 2 years until a few months ago when I changed my posture. (among other things recommended in her book)
    In regards to acupunctureb, I got great relief when my pain was at it’s worse and when it flare-up badly, with acupuncture. It’s a natural pain killer and did wonders to numb the pain and it just subsided after the treatment. My chiro does acupuncture as a passive treatment, when the injury is fresh.

    Good luck!

    Michy wrote on July 17th, 2010
  13. I also have had amazing results with Esther Gokhale’s technique and book. I had chronic back pain for 2 years until a few months ago when I changed my posture. (among other things recommended in her book)
    In regards to acupuncture, I got great relief when my pain was at it’s worse and when it flare-up badly, with acupuncture. It’s a natural pain killer and did wonders to numb the pain and it just subsided after the treatment. My chiro does acupuncture as a passive treatment, when the injury is fresh.

    Good luck!

    Michy wrote on July 17th, 2010
  14. Oops sorry about the double post.

    Michy wrote on July 17th, 2010
  15. I did three sessions with my therapist for a pain i had been dealing with in my shoulder blade area from muscle up practice at crossfit. I could barely lift my right arm over my head. 3 sessions later…(all covered by insurance) and I’m as good as new! Im a big fan.

    kristina wrote on February 27th, 2014

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