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. 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
  2. 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
  3. This gives a good overview on acupuncture and the fact that it is mostly placebo.

    John wrote on July 15th, 2010
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. Acupuncture is just the placebo effect in disguise:

    Maxx wrote on July 16th, 2010
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. Oops sorry about the double post.

    Michy wrote on July 17th, 2010
  11. 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

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2015 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!