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!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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