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What is Acupuncture and how does it work?

Acupuncture is a technique of inserting and manipulating fine needles into specific points on the body to alter the body's physiological processes.

The classical Chinese explanation is that channels of energy run in regular patterns through the body and over its surface. These energy channels, called meridians, are like rivers flowing through the body to irrigate and nourish the tissues. An obstruction in the movement of these energy rivers is like a dam that backs up, thus creating localized symptoms and systemic health problems.  Acupuncture points are located along these meridians and the meridians can be influenced by needling the acupuncture points.  It is important to note that there is no anatomical or physiological basis for the existence of meridians or acupuncture points and that Chinese acupuncture theory is useful primarily for understanding how to perform acupuncture effectively.  According to the National Institute of Health 1998 consensus statement on acupuncture, these traditional Chinese medical concepts "are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information but continue to play an important role in the evaluation of patients and the formulation of treatment in acupuncture."

Acupuncture has been the subject of active scientific research since the late 20th century.  The World Health Organization published a review of controlled trials using acupuncture and concluded it was effective for the treatment of dozens of conditions.  Additionally, the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the American Medical Association (AMA) and various government reports have studied and commented on the efficacy of acupuncture. There is general agreement that acupuncture is safe when administered by well-trained practitioners using sterile needles, and that further research is not only appropriate, but potentially holds exciting breakthroughs for healthcare.

Are There Any Side Effects to Treatment?

Not usually.  One of the wonderful things about acupuncture is that in the hands of a well-trained practitioner it is completely safe, does no harm and has no side effects.  Occasionally, the original symptoms worsen for a few days, or other general changes in appetite, sleep, bowel or urination patterns, or emotional state may be triggered. These should not cause concern, as these are simply indications that the acupuncture is starting to work.

Patients do often report feeling very fatigued or “useless” after their first treatment.  This is a normal reaction to introducing the body to acupuncture.  Generally this feeling occurs after the first and sometimes the second treatment and then does not return after subsequent treatments.

Acupuncture is an extremely safe form of medicine.  In a Japanese survey of 55,291 acupuncture treatments given over five years by 73 acupuncturists, 99.8% of them were performed with no significant minor adverse effects and zero major adverse incidents. Two combined studies in the UK of 66,229 acupuncture treatments yielded only 134 minor adverse events.  The total of 121,520 treatments with acupuncture therapy were given with no major adverse incidents.   The most common minor adverse events include minor bleeding during removal of the needles, bruising and dizziness.

Are the acupuncture needles sterile?  What are they made of?

Sarah uses single use, sterilized, disposable, individually packaged acupuncture needles.  The sterilized needle package is opened during your treatment and each needle is permanently disposed of in a biohazard container after use.  Biohazard containers are then shipped to a medical waste facility. 

The needles Sarah uses are surgical grade stainless steel of the highest quality.  Sarah does not use needles with silicone or other coatings. The upper third of the needles is wound with a thicker wire or covered in plastic, to stiffen the needle and provide a handle to grasp while inserting.   Occasionally under certain circumstances Sarah may use needles that are silver or gold plated.

 Acupuncture needles are of a fine diameter. These needles are far smaller (and therefore far less painful) than hypodermic injection needles since they do not have to be hollow for purposes of injection.  The needles Sarah uses are among the thinnest acupuncture needles available, measuring 0.16mm in diameter.

How Many Treatments Will I Need?

The number of treatments needed differs from person to person. For complex or long-standing conditions, one a week for several months may be recommended. For acute problems, only two or three visits total will be required.

 During your first visit Sarah will give you an estimate of how many treatments you may need in order to see results.  Typically in Sarah’s practice patients come in once a week for 3-4 weeks in a row.  After this initial course of treatment things have usually resolved to the point that an individual can schedule appointments on an “as needed” basis.  Gynecological concerns, regulation of thyroid and other hormones and longstanding complex conditions are exceptions and may require weekly treatment for three months or more months before they are improved. 

 After the initial symptoms are resolved, some individuals choose to see Sarah weekly, monthly or semi-annually as a tonic for good health or seasonally for allergies and other concerns.

What kind of training do acupuncturists have?

The standard of education to become a Licensed Acupuncturist (L.Ac) consists of a four year graduate Masters level medical program of over 3000 classroom and over 1000 clinical hours.  In Maine, a four year undergraduate degree is also required for licensure.  It is an extremely rigorous educational program and acupuncturists in the state of Maine have generally spent eight years or more studying at the university level.

After completing graduate studies, a candidate must pass a series of comprehensive board exams through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) in Oriental Medical Theory, Biomedicine, Acupuncture and Herbology.  Once these exams have been passed the NCCAOM provides national certification.  The candidate then applies for licensure in their state of residence.

But Licensed Acupuncturists aren't the only ones using acupuncture needles....

“Medical acupuncturists” are MDs who practice a simplified form of acupuncture.  Physicians can take a 200 hour course to learn some basics, but in Maine are also able to practice acupuncture with no training.  Here in Maine, chiropractors can practice a simplified form known as “chiropractic acupuncture” that according to their scope of practice can only be used for musculoskeletal complaints.  Chiropractors can use "chiropractic acupuncture" in their practices with only a 100 hour course.  Physical Therapists in Maine are now able to use "dry needling" for addressing muscle restriction with no additional training or education.

While legally able to practice a basic version of acupuncture, medical and chiropractic acupuncturists as well as PTs are not licensed acupuncturists (L.Ac) and are not certified by the NCCAOM.  While they may be able to provide basic needling for pain relief and can be competent providers of acupuncture or dry needling for simple musculoskeletal concerns complicated or chronic conditions or conditions outside their scope of practice should be brought to a licensed acupuncturist.

Licensed acupuncturists have an in depth working knowledge of East Asian medical diagnosis and treatment modalities and have worked with hundreds of patients at their college clinics under the watchful eyes of their professors.  East Asian medicine is a complete way of diagnosing and treating the body and acupuncture treatment is most effective when is used within this context.  The care you will receive under a licensed acupuncturist and the results you will see speak volumes about the level of training that is required to practice this ancient, and ever-evolving form of medicine.

I’ve heard there are different “styles” of acupuncture, what’s this all about?

Many people are surprised to hear that there are different styles of acupuncture.  The primary style of acupuncture taught at colleges in the United States is known as TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine and is also the form that is the most widely practiced in China today.  In addition to TCM there are emerging styles of American acupuncture, as well as a variety of Japanese, Vietnamese, Tibetan, European and Korean styles. All styles of acupuncture fall under the heading of East Asian Medicine, which consists of a complete and holistic way of diagnosing and treating the body with acupuncture, moxabustion, herbs and other therapies.

Which style works the best?

The truth is that by and large they ALL work and this is one of the fantastic and perplexing things about this ancient, yet always evolving system of medicine.  Each practitioner has their own preferences, their own body of experiential knowledge and their own training to work from when providing treatment.  The important thing is that you find the right acupuncturist for YOU.

Which style do you practice?

Sarah practices a gentle and unique form of Japanese acupuncture known as Inochi (Life) Medicine that uses between three and fifteen carefully placed needles per treatment.  The needles are thinner than a human hair and are inserted very shallowly below the skin.  Sarah also uses moxabustion, herbal and nutritional therapies, traditional bodywork and other therapeutics.

Japanese acupuncture has several different lineages and has been developing over the last 1500 years.  The Japanese were introduced to Chinese Medicine and the integrated theories of acupuncture, bodywork, and herbal medicine in the 6th century.  Since that time Japanese practitioners have developed many unique theories and techniques.

 Japanese acupuncture is unique in its efficiency and precision. Therapeutic techniques aim to use a minimal amount of stimulation to attain the greatest results. Much of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory remains intact and the majority of the actual acupuncture points are also the same.  In the Japanese styles there is a strong emphasis on root (meridian based) and branch (symptomatic) treatment, “listening” carefully to the wrist pulse throughout the treatment, the use of thin needles and shallow insertion.

“In the Japanese systems, acupuncture points are viewed as a living phenomenon. The anatomical location is considered to be only the starting point. To find the actual point, the practitioner must be able to palpate exactly where it is. Thus, countless hours are spent in the Japanese acupuncture community developing the ability to sense with one’s hands where the “live points” are. Subtle changes in temperature, moisture, and skin resilience, are sought to find the best point.”

What are you doing when you take my pulses?

Pulse diagnosis is an ancient technique that has been developed over thousands of years in indigenous medical systems around the world.  By feeling the wrist pulses on each side of the body a practitioner can get information about the overall health of an individual and the functioning of the different organ systems.

Practitioners of pulse diagnosis develop their ability to “listen” to a pulse over years of practice.  Some of Sarah's mentors in this art have been listening to pulses for 60 years or more and can accurately determine a pregnancy in its early stages, provide information about medical history or determine underlying causes of disease.  Sarah has have been taking pulses for 18 years and consider herself to be in the very early stages of understanding and mastering this technique.  Pulse diagnosis is a lifelong study.