Debunking Acupuncture Myths - Part 2

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac

Myth: Anyone Can Practice Acupuncture and You Don’t Have to go to School to Study it

Truth: Not anyone can practice acupuncture, and you must go to school for many years to become a licensed practitioner.

I love this one. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked if I had to do any schooling to become an acupuncturist. The answer is yes, did I ever.

The amount of education required to become an acupuncturist varies by country, state and province. On average an acupuncturist spends between 3-6 years in school full time studying both Chinese and Western medicine and must have many clinical hours before they graduate. The number of clinical hours at my school was 780.

This question actually used to hurt my feelings. But now I realize that many people simply don’t know much about acupuncture and what is involved in its study. An important thing to note is that acupuncturists and practitioners of Chinese medicine study both Chinese and Western medicine. We must understand Chinese concepts like qi, jing and shen, but must also have a solid command of anatomy, physiology, pathology and diagnosis. Acupuncturists do a large component on nutrition, and have to learn many modalities used in TCM like cupping, guasha, moxibustion, electro acupuncture and tui na. There are also classes on how to speak to patients, being empathetic, listening and observation. The human component of the patient is an important part of both diagnosis and treatment. Meditation, qi gong and ba gua (a martial art) were large components of my TCM education. We meditated before each class to clear our minds and help us focus, and before exams. Discussions between students and clinic supervisors to go over case studies were common while doing our clinical hours and there were many papers written during our course of study.

Licensing, like education varies depending on where you are. In most places, you must finish your education with an accredited school of TCM where you have completed all your courses, passed your exams and completed all your clinical hours. You are then issued a license, must purchase insurance and you are ready to practice. If you would like to know what type of education your acupuncturist has completed and how licensing works where you live, ask them. I am sure they would be happy to explain it to you.

Myth: Acupuncture Hurts

Truth: Acupuncture does not hurt.

This is probably the one I hear the most. Many people have a fear of needles and are afraid that acupuncture will be painful. Your experience with acupuncture depends largely on your acupuncturist. My experience with my acupuncturist was painless. There was never pain with the needles. I have since had acupuncture with many practitioners and it really depends. Some were very gentle, and some were not. Acupuncture does not have to be painful. I am very gentle. I do not like pain if it is not necessary.

I think there is a lot of fear associated with acupuncture because people simply don’t understand it. I hope writing this will help. Acupuncture needles are tiny, not the hollow point needles used to take blood or give injections. Acupuncture is not painful, quite the contrary, most people find it relaxing and rejuvenating. Of course the treatment depends on your practitioner, but as a rule, I would say that acupuncture doesn’t hurt or at least, it doesn’t have to.

Myth: Acupuncture only works if you believe it will (Acupuncture has only a placebo effect)

Truth: If you don’t believe acupuncture will work, the effect will probably be lessened.

This is an interesting one. In my last year of school I wrote my thesis on the mind and its connection to healing. I read many books on the subject and I found them extremely enlightening. I think that the mind is a large component in most things we do. I think if you go into anything believing that it will help you, then chances are much better that it will. The mind is a powerful tool, and there are many studies illustrating its healing effect.

My basic answer to this one is that one of the most important things in life (and an acupuncture treatment) is being OPEN. If you come in for an acupuncture treatment being open to the possibility that it may work, the prognosis will be much better than if you are convinced that it won’t. This is just common sense. This has been illustrated time and again in trials using placebos.

If someone came to see me and said that they absolutely didn’t think acupuncture worked, I would wonder what they were doing in my office. I would suggest that they find something they thought would work and to try that. There is no point trying to convince a closed mind.

*Note - something interesting that I discovered during my research on my thesis about the mind and its effect on healing, was that attitude and openness had a huge impact on peoples ability to recover from serious diseases. They did many studies which illustrated that people who were rigid and closed in their thinking tended to suffer more and die more quickly than people who were positive and open to different types of treatment. The second group lived longer, had better quality of life and if there was recovery or remission, the people were usually in this group.

Myth: You can get diseases from Acupuncture because of dirty needles

Truth: Modern acupuncturists use disposable needles, so no worry about disease transmission

This is a common myth. Modern acupuncturists use sterile, disposable needles. In ancient China, there were problems with hygiene, and needles were reused and diseases spread. There may be places in the world where health regulations are not up to the standards we are used to in the West, so my advice to you would be to ask.

Every place I have ever had acupuncture, the needles were disposable - one time use. That is the only kind I use. One of the exams that acupuncturists take is dedicated to clean needle technique. This covers all aspects of needling, including hygiene, hand washing, germ theory, sterilization, etc. It also covers everything that could happen when needling a patient.

When you fill out the initial intake form when you first go to see an acupuncturist, they will ask you questions like if you have a bleeding disorder (which affects treatment), or if you have any blood borne diseases like HIV. This is for the safety of the acupuncturist, so they can be aware to be especially careful when dealing with blood.

Myth: Acupuncture is for people who believe in witchcraft, voodoo and astrology

Truth: Maybe. And so what? I hear voodoo is pretty dope.

I sometimes hear that acupuncture has been lumped in with things like witchcraft, voodoo and astrology. People sometimes think that if you believe in acupuncture that you must not have a rational mind and are incapable of logic and reason. If you are an intelligent person, you would never subscribe to something like acupuncture, you would stand firmly on the side of science and medicines that can be quantified and qualified.

I would say to anyone with this thinking that they are just misinformed. I do not profess to know much about witchcraft, voodoo or astrology, but I do know a little about acupuncture. I can tell you that there are no goat entrails, dead chickens or astral charts used in my practice. Acupuncture is based on a long history of medicine in China and is still employed by a large part of the population there. Acupuncturists have an honest desire to help people get better. The TCM practitioner teaches how to live, not dependence on their treatments. The goal is wellness.

The truth is, we need both - Eastern and Western medicine. Western medicine has much to offer. Advances in diagnostics, testing and imaging have helped save many lives. It is my opinion that if the two could work together, there is no limit to what we could achieve and the lives that could be saved. Every modality has its strengths and weaknesses. You can’t use a wrench to fix every problem with your car, you need a full set of tools at your disposal. And the most important thing is choice. We are blessed to live in a world where we have choice. We are all lucky to have the ability to seek out whatever type of treatment we want, depending on our ailment and our beliefs. Opinions are one thing, but trying to take choice away from people is something else altogether. I sincerely hope that through education, and an openness to information, more and more people will learn about the benefits of this wonderful medicine, so that for those of us who believe, will always have the choice to use it.

I will leave you with a quote...

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.  ~ Aristotle

Acupuncture Research Studies

Studies on Acupuncture and Chinese medicine, listed by category - Acupuncture.com

http://www.acupuncture.com/research/

Acupuncture studies - Science Daily

http://www.sciencedaily.com/search/?keyword=acupuncture+research
List of acupuncture studies - National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
http://search2.google.cit.nih.gov/search?q=acupuncture+research&site=NCCAM&client=NCCAM_frontend&proxystylesheet=
NCCAM_frontend&output=xml_no_dtd&filter=0&getfields=*&proxyreload=1&x=0&y=0

Articles about Acupuncture in the military

http://www.ukiahclinic.com/blog/doctors-specialists-use-acupuncture-to-treat-vetrans/
http://www.statesman.com/news/local/military-tries-acupuncture-to-treat-troops-for-ptsd-757786.html
http://hprc-online.org/blog/acupuncture-in-military-medicine-is-a-growing-phenomenon#.UDU3-GhShXc
http://www.news-medical.net/news/20120105/Special-issue-explores-military-applications-of-acupuncture.aspx


Debunking Acupuncture Myths - Part 1

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine to some, are as mysterious as the cosmos. There are many “myths” about acupuncture and Chinese medicine out there, and as a result, there is a lot of misinformation and people making claims that are simply not true. We live in an age where we have access to unprecedented amounts of information. The sheer volume can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. As an acupuncturist, I see my job as not only to treat people with all the tools in my Chinese medicine toolkit, but to also be an ambassador and try to share what this medicine is, how it works and how it can heal mind, body and soul.

In my career I have had to deal with many people who think that acupuncture and Chinese medicine are not “real” medicine. I cannot tell you how many people at parties and other social events want to tell me how silly they think it is that anyone would study something like Chinese medicine.

I decided a long time ago that it was not my job to convince anyone how awesome acupuncture is. I feel about acupuncture the way I feel about most everything; I am grateful to have the choice to use it, or not. It is something that has helped and continues to help me, and so I use it. If people are against acupuncture, they should not have any. There are many healing modalities out there and every one of us has the choice of which ones we want to use. Where it becomes upsetting is when someone is told that what they believe in is WRONG and that it should not be allowed to be used by anyone. This is the line for me. It takes an evolved person to be able to step outside of themselves and see the bigger picture. If you think something does not benefit you, does not mean that it may not benefit others.

Over the years I have come across a lot of articles that represent the view that Chinese medicine is not "real" medicine and that its practitioners are a bunch of quacks. This article is a good example:

Quackery and Mumbo-Jumbo in the U.S. Military

It seems this is a very controversial subject (as you can see from the 1400+ sassy comments). Can you guess which comments are mine...?

Myth: Acupuncture Doesn’t Work and There is no Evidence to Support It.

Truth: Acupuncture does work and there are many scientific studies that support its efficacy.

I find this is a big one with the left brainers. Just as there has always been a disparity between science and religion, it seems there will be friction between medical “science” and any medicine that is not able to be “proven” adequately by scientific methods.

If acupuncture didn’t work, acupuncturists would be out of business, and the medicine certainly wouldn’t have survived for thousands of years in China. Acupuncture has been successful in treating a myriad of conditions. The goal of acupuncture is returning the body to a state of equilibrium and health so that symptoms disappear. The severity of the imbalance is reflected in the severity of the symptoms. Things like cancer are a serious imbalance or, more often than not, one that is long standing. The body is not being “cured” by the acupuncture, the acupuncture is allowing the body to cure itself.

For me, being able to say something “works” comes from direct experience. Research studies are one thing, but I want to try it for myself. I am an experience kind of girl. If someone tells me about a food I have never eaten, I don’t want to read about it, I want to TASTE it.

This is my experience with acupuncture:

As a teenager I was plagued by menstrual cramps. Western doctors told me I had to just suck it up. They gave me very strong pain meds that helped with the pain, but made me feel like a vegetable and I was unable to function. After suffering for years doctors finally suggested I have a hysterectomy (removing the uterus). I was 15 years old. This caused me to look for alternatives, and I discovered acupuncture. After a few months of acupuncture and herbs, the cramps that had plagued me for years were gone.

Evidence is out there. For me, the evidence is in my experience, both personally and professionally. I have seen it work, over and over again. Everyday in practice, I see people get better with acupuncture.

There are many scientific studies that illustrate the effectiveness of acupuncture. They are being published all the time. I have included a comprehensive list of current research and studies at the end of this article.

*Note - in the article mentioned at the beginning of this piece - Quackery and Mumbo-Jumbo in the U.S. Military - the author states that there is no evidence to support acupuncture’s efficacy. In my comment, I state that this is absolutely untrue. This was countered by 2 other people asking me to cite examples as they thought I was “making things up”. I cited 31 studies. There were no more comments. :)

Myth: Acupuncture is based on Qi, Which Doesn’t Exist Because it Can’t be Proven.

Truth: Qi does exist. I know it, because I can feel it.

Qi is at the very heart of Chinese medicine. It can be loosely translated as energy and is the life force by which all our physiological processes take place. It cannot be seen, weighed or measured. Because of this, it is difficult to “prove” in the scientific sense.

An acupuncturist spends years studying qi. Because acupuncture is energy work, an intimate knowledge of qi is essential. We spend years developing a sensitivity to it. We must learn to detect it, and use our needles to manipulate it to bring the body back to health. Pain is TCM is considered a stagnation or blockage of qi. Acupuncture is used to break up the stagnation and allow the qi to flow through the body freely.

In school we studied qi gong with a master from China. He took us to the park and asked us to stand next to a tree. We took our hands and held them a few inches away from the bark, trying to feel the trees qi. Most of us didn’t feel anything at first, but after practicing, and honing our sensitivity, we began to feel it in plants and living things everywhere.

I can feel someones qi when they walk into the room. I can tell if they are happy, or frustrated or having a bad day. I am very sensitive to qi. If you were to ask me if I could prove it, I would say that it isn’t something I have to prove, I can FEEL it. If someone doesn’t believe it exists, I would ask them to get onto the table and I will do an acupuncture point which will allow them to feel their qi. For me, this is the best way to explain what qi is. We are all made of qi. It is what keeps us alive, and for anyone who doesn’t believe in qi but is open enough to try, I would say have an acupuncture or qi gong treatment and you will be able to feel what qi is.

Any meditator, yoga practitioner or student of the martial arts knows what qi is. They are hyper aware of their qi because it is important to their practice. So it is not just acupuncturists that know qi, it is anyone with a sensitivity to their bodies and the world around them.

For those who are more scientifically minded I would say this. Qi is not something that can be seen or measured. Just like faith, pain or gravity. Yet religions of the world are built on faith, millions of people every year suffer with pain and the population of the planet is kept firmly on the ground thanks to gravity.

I have always been aware that there are things in (and out of) this world that are beyond my comprehension. They are bigger than I am. And thank gods, because, as a person, I am small. If we could know everything that was, how boring life would be. One of the best things about life is the wonder of it. Discovering new things, having new experiences. I don’t think science can explain everything, and I am glad there are things out there that are yet to be explained.

Myth: Acupuncture is Dangerous

Truth: Acupuncture is Very Safe.

Acupuncture is quite safe. In all my years of having acupuncture, and my subsequent years treating patients, I think the worst thing that has ever happened was a tiny bruise here and there. I have never killed anybody, made them pass out, and to my knowledge, no one has ever heard screaming coming from my office.

I sometimes read about people who say that there is research to prove that acupuncture causes deaths and serious injuries. I have looked up several studies. In one study I found there have been a total of 95 cases of “serious adverse effects” and 5 reported cases of death attributed to acupuncture. When you dig a little deeper, you find that these numbers are world wide and a grand total from the last 60 years.

There are some things that can happen when having an acupuncture treatment that you should be aware of. They are:

~ bruising (hematoma)
~ a feeling of heat or distension at the needle site
~ nausea (it is good to eat a little something before a treatment)
~ headache
~ bleeding (a drop or two may come out when the needle is withdrawn)

Some pleasant side effects often include:

~ an increase in energy
~ improved sleep
~ a sense of relaxation and wellbeing
~ an increased sensation in the body
~ a feeling of self awareness

Dangerous things can happen and have been reported from people who have received acupuncture. Things like pneumothorax (a punctured lung) can happen if the practitioner is not skilled. Needles can break and sometimes an acupuncturist can forget and leave a needle in after a treatment. These are extremely rare. Of course, these things can happen, but they largely depend on the skill of the practitioner. Make sure that you are seeing someone who has completed a certified program, is licensed and insured to practice acupuncture.

In all my years receiving and giving acupuncture treatments, I have never experienced any of these negative effects. The most common negative effects in my experience is occasionally slight bruising, and sometimes, when you remove a needle, a drop of blood comes with it. The effects that are far more common however, are that people become so relaxed that they fall asleep on the table, and they feel wonderful after a treatment and the problems they were coming to see you for are completely resolved. Other symptoms that they were not even coming in for often disappear as the body is rebalanced with acupuncture and many people find that they have an increase in energy and clarity of thought as a result of their treatments.

With any medical procedure there are risks. Everyone must weigh them and decide if the risks are worth it. In my opinion, acupuncture is an extremely safe and effective treatment with an experienced practitioner and the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Myth: Using Acupuncture in the Military is Dangerous for the Troops

Truth: Acupuncture is safe, inexpensive and without side effects = Better for the troops.

I have noticed lately some articles talking about the military using acupuncture for their troops to combat the effects of pain, traumatic brain injury and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). There has been a lot of controversy about this issue, and the article cited earlier is a sad example of how destructive misinformation can be. I was particularly fascinated with the thread of comments that appeared (more than 1400 of them) throughout the day. And even though there are a lot of nay sayers, I thought that overall, it was a thoughtful discussion and was encouraged that there was an open dialogue on the subject.

The thing that is disturbing about this article is the lack of information, or misinformation that is presented. The other disturbing thing is that this person is suggesting that acupuncture be removed from the program because she thinks it is ineffective, a waste of taxpayers money and dangerous for the troops. I propose something that is perhaps more dangerous to the troops. WAR. A few needles in comparison to the atrocities these soldiers face in battle seems like a risk worth taking. And I am sure that receiving acupuncture treatment is completely voluntary.

The comments in this thread range from one end of the spectrum to the other. And it is wonderful that we are able to exercise the freedom to say what we think. I am thankful to the bravery of every man and woman who puts their lives on the line every day so that we all may enjoy that freedom. I am not a supporter of war, but I do support freedom.

My response to this doctor is that it seems that she had made up her mind before getting any information on the subject whatsoever. There are many modalities out there that can be used to treat a variety of maladies. I cannot imagine the kinds of things from physical injuries to psychological problems that must plague people in the military. Do we not owe it to them to offer as many options for their healing as possible even if they are not what we would personally chose for ourselves?

To Dr. Hall I would say, you have every right to feel the way you do about acupuncture. You are lucky to live in a country where you have that right. Many people do not. But I would ask that you not take the option away from others who may benefit. It would be like me saying that I don’t like eggs so I want to have chickens abolished everywhere so no one else can enjoy them either. We all deserve to have choice, and the troops should have as many choices for treatment as possible and make the choice for themselves.

Part 2 of Debunking the Acupuncture Myth Next Month! Stay tuned.... ;)

 


The Needle Fear...

Why a fear of needles shouldn’t discourage you from trying acupuncture

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

It is a terrible thing to admit, but I, an acupuncturist, hate needles.

Whenever I have to go to the doctor to have blood taken, I surprise even myself with the creative ways I manage to not make it down to the nurse to have my blood drawn. My doctor knows this about me, and I am always getting the sass.

The truth is, having blood taken hurts (it hurts me anyways). The needles they use are hollow point, and it usually takes them a few tries before they can get a vein. I am always left with bruises, and this is why I don't like needles.

Acupuncture needles however, are not like the hollow point needles used to take blood or give injections. They are very fine - 4 times thicker than a human hair in fact (the thickness varies, but they are pretty small), and in most cases, the patient can barely feel them. They are also disposable, and one use only.

I have often had patients over the years who reluctantly came to see me, not committing to a treatment, but wanting to talk about their fear of needles. I always say "no problem, have a seat." I explain that the needles that acupuncturists use are not the type used by medical doctors, and that they are tiny in comparison. I take out one out, open it and hand it to them so they can feel it, touch it, and this helps with the fear. I then roll up my sleeve and tap the needle gently into my arm to show them how it works, and that I am not screaming in pain. I explain that I am very gentle, and if they would like to try, I can put a needle into the same spot on their arm. I tell them if they feel anything uncomfortable, or painful for even an instant, then it comes out.

I have never had anyone after the demonstration, not try one needle. Once they see that acupuncture is not painful, we continue with an intake, and then a treatment. People often have to ask me when I will be putting the needles in when I already have put in several.

Here is a chart that illustrates the difference in size between different objects and an acupuncture needle.

 

In my experience, there is a difference in the old school Chinese style of acupuncture which emphasizes strong stimulation of the needles (twirling and twisting the needles to achieve a "qi sensation"), and a gentler style that is better suited to Western patients.

When in China, I got to visit a hospital that offered both Western and Chinese medicine and saw some of the acupuncture techniques used. They were a lot more hard core than most patients are used to here in the West. In China, this is what is expected, but if you are catering to Western patients, gentler and kinder is the way to go. It is relatively new here, so it should be introduced gently to those who are trying it out, and especially those who are a bit nervous about needles.

As a kid I went to a Chinese acupuncturist who was incredibly gentle. I never felt any pain from the needles, and I have always fashioned myself after her. There is an intimate trust relationship between an acupuncturist and their patient. They must trust you, and their body must trust you, which you can feel when you are putting in the needles. At first there is often resistance which decreases as time goes on. Eventually, the body accepts the treatment and trusts that you are doing it good and mean it no harm.

So, if you are curious about acupuncture but haven't gone to have a treatment because of a fear of needles, I would say find an acupuncturist and go and speak to them. Most are aware that fear of needles is common and will do their best to explain and show you so that you can start to reap the wonderful rewards offered by acupuncture. I know I am very glad that I did. :)

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Featured image taken by Jordan Francisco / Flickr
Chinese Silk Pulse Cushions : Chinese Medicine Living

The Needle Fear : Chinese Medicine Living


What is Gua Sha?

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac

Gua Sha is a medical treatment used in Chinese medicine and throughout South East Asia. In Indonesia the technique is called Kerik, in Vietnam: Cao Yio and in Laos: Khoud Lam.

“Gua” means to scrape or rub. “Sha” is the term for the reddish raised skin rash that occurs as a result of the scraping. Sha refers to the blood stagnation in the subcutaneous tissues before and after it is raised as the reddish skin rash (petechiae) or bruising (ecchymosis).

Gua Sha involves lubricating the skin with oil (traditionally a thick oil such as peanut was used) and using a smooth edged instrument, the acupuncturist uses long or short strokes causing redness or bruising. The most common areas for treatment are the yang areas of the body such as the back, neck, shoulders, buttocks, limbs. Occasionally the chest and abdomen are used as well. There are also types of facial Gua Sha that are used in conjunction with cosmetic acupuncture treatments to help increase circulation, elasticity and firmness of the skin.

Gua Sha does however cause temporary ecchymosis (or bruising) which fades in 2-4 days. In TCM theory, the intensity/severity of the bruising is an indication of the severity of the toxicity, stagnation or fever inside the body.

What Does Gua Sha Treat?

Gua Sha is used to treat as well as prevent the common cold, flu, bronchitis, asthma, and pain both acute and chronic. It is also used to detoxify the body, and alleviates fevers as the scraping brings the excess heat and toxins to the surface of the body to be released.

When used for pain there may be an achy feeling, tenderness or knotted feeling in the muscles. It is excellent for treating colds or flus especially if there are respiratory problems or high fever. Any problems of qi or blood stagnation can be successfully treated with Gua Sha.

Gua Sha has a special function to relieve fevers and inflammation of the respiratory system, and performs very well in conjunction with acupuncture and cupping for these conditions.

What Does The “Sha” Tell You?

The colour and intensity of the Sha is both diagnostic and prognostic. If the Sha is very light in colour it indicates a deficiency of blood. If the Sha is a fresh and intense red, it means the condition is acute and has not yet penetrated deep into the body. If the Sha is black or purple in colour it indicates blood stagnation which means the condition has been long standing. If the Sha is brown, there may be dryness in the body and a deficiency of fluids. Dark deep red Sha indicates heat. The Sha is a good reflection of detoxification and fever release.

What Tools Do You Use for Gua Sha?

There are many things that can be used to do Gua Sha. Traditionally, a slice of water buffalo horn, a piece of jade, a Chinese soup spoon, or a coin were used. You can basically use anything with a rounded edge. Now there are many tools of various sizes and shapes that are used for Gua Sha. Below is a photo of some common Gua Sha tools.

It is also important to lubricate the skin before administering the Gus Sha. Various massage oils can be used. You can also use peanut oil, almond oil, coconut oil or vicks vaporub as a lubricant.

How is Gua Sha Applied?

The area of skin to be treated is applied with oil as a lubricating medium. The acupuncturist then takes the Gua Sha tool and strokes the skin in a downward motion until the petechia form. If there is no blood stasis, stagnation or fever, a rash (petechiae) will not form and the skin will only turn pink.

Gua Sha is stimulating to the immune system, detoxifies, increases circulation, regulates organ function, normalizes metabolic processes, removes stagnation and eases pain. After a Gua Sha treatment, a patient usually feels a shift or release especially if there was pain. There is often sweating which is the body’s way of releasing toxins that have been inside the body. Gua Sha revitalizes, rejuvenates, helps diminish stress, fatigue and severe exhaustion. It helps to release emotions, relaxes the body and helps to clear the mind and senses. Gua Sha is a simple treatment, but incredibly effective for many ailments which is why it has been used in China and South East Asia for thousands of years.