The thought of someone puncturing your skin with a needle is at least strange and for some probably even terrifying but this is of course at the heart of a treatment modality we know as acupuncture.  Traditional acupuncture is actually part of a system called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that together with herbal remedies, massage and diet has been practiced for thousands of years.  One of the first known medical texts describing such practices dates back to 200 BC and is called The Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic.

Interestingly enough, acupuncture may actually date back to prehistoric times even pre-dating the TCM days. In 1991, the “Tyrolean Ice Man” was discovered dating back to 3300BC.  On his body were well organized tattoo markings that when later studied seemed to correlate with many traditional Chinese acupuncture points that may have related to specific medical conditions.  It has been suggested that this is evidence of an organized system of treatment remarkably similar to that seen in TCM.

Moving forward to present time, acupuncture has gained and continues to gain acceptance in both complementary and alternative healthcare as well as the modern medical community. That being said, there appears to be two schools of thought with regard to the treatment.  One school still maintains the ancient traditional Chinese beliefs while the other is referred to as “Western Medical Acupuncture” which takes a more modern scientific approach to acupuncture while still respecting and utilizing some of the traditional ideas and methods.

In the traditional Chinese sense, many of the concepts regarding health revolve around the idea of a life force which is called “Qi” (chee).  Qi is the life force that flows through us and is essentially the difference between life and death.  Energy flows through the body in an organized pattern along specific lines that correlate to organs and organ system in the body which are called “meridians”.  In summary, there are 14 basic meridians that are usually named after organs such as the spleen meridian, or the bladder meridian for example.  In this model, diseases may invade a meridian leading to damage in the associated organ.  Acupuncture is thought to repulse the disease and restore proper function and health.  This is a short, summarized explanation and does not do the system proper justice but does serve to give the reader the idea.

Western Medical Acupuncture takes a more mechanical and structural perspective.  At the basis of both schools is the understanding that acupuncture does in deed work.  Many scientific studies have helped us to begin to understand how acupuncture works.  These studies have confirmed that many of the concepts from the traditional practice of acupuncture do work but for more specific physiological and anatomical reasons rather than for the reasons theorized those thousands of years ago.  Modern science has discovered that acupuncture has tremendous effects on muscle tissue, peripheral nerves, spinal nerves, neurotransmitters and even in the higher centers of the brain.  These effects help to control and modulate how we feel and process pain.

Today, it is well accepted that acupuncture can be an effective treatment for many neuromusculoskeletal conditions.  These include things like back and neck pain, knee pain and even headaches.  Currently the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in Ontario endorses the use of acupuncture in the treatment of knee pain.  Acupuncture has also proven to be helpful for some people in smoking cessation programs. There is also growing but less compelling evidence that acupuncture may be helpful with gynecological and urological conditions, dental pain, nausea, and perhaps even infertility as well as many other conditions.

In Ontario, a variety of different practitioners may practice acupuncture.  These include medical doctors, chiropractors, physiotherapists, registered massage therapists, naturopaths and nurse practitioners.  People outside of these professions may also call themselves acupuncture practitioners so it is important to do your research and be sure that you are seeing a qualified practitioner who is practicing within their specific scope of practice.

Much of the information from this article comes from a text entitled, “An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture.” By White, Cummings and Filshie.