Acupuncture is a system of healing that originated in China at least 3,000 years ago. It is part of a larger healthcare system called oriental medicine. Oriental medicine has a broad scope that includes herbal medicine, massage (tui na), exercise (Tai Chi, Qi Gong), meditation, and diet, in addition to acupuncture.

The term “acupuncture” is derived from “acus” (needle) and “punctura” (puncture). The acupuncture procedure involves placing fine needles through the skin and into the underlying tissue at specific locations called acupuncture points or acupoints. These needles stimulate underlying nerves and the connective tissue fibers. Acupuncture points lie on channels or “meridians” which are thought to carry a stream of the life force energy called “Qi” (chi). Qi circulates cyclically through the body and connects with deeper channels to organs deep inside the body. Meridians appear to lie along fascial planes (clefts between muscle groups). There are several meridian systems (i.e., principal, curious, tendinomuscular, etc.) that are utilized by the practitioner to affect the body in different ways. Three hundred sixty-one (361) primary acupoints are represented on the surface of the body and have specific names and functions.

Figures showing acupuncture meridians and points on the front, back and side of the body.

There are many different systems of acupuncture. These include Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Five Elements, French Energetics, Neuroanatomical, Dr. Tan Method, Curious Meridians, Auricular (ear), Scalp and Electro-acupuncture, to name some. One specialized type of Electro-acupuncture, known as Craig PENS, has been studied quite extensively at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas for the treatment of pain.

Scientific research has given us some insight into the nature of acupoints and the physiological effects of acupuncture on the body. Microscopically, acupuncture points have been shown to contain large blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and nerve endings. Electrical measurements show that acupoints exhibit an increased electrical conductance (decreased electrical resistance) when compared to non-acupuncture points. Thus, electricity flows more easily through acupoints.

Acupuncture and the Relief of Pain

Research has also shown how acupuncture works very effectively to reduce or eliminate pain. Bruce Pomeranz, MD, PhD, studied physiological responses of humans and laboratory animals to acupuncture. He found that acupuncture works at the level of the spinal cord and brain to block pain transmission. It stimulates an area of the brain (hypothalamus) to produce endorphins which are the body’s own pain medicine (similar to morphine). It also stimulates a hormone that releases cortisol from the adrenal glands (anti-inflammatory). Needling painful acupuncture points in the muscles (trigger points) apparently turns down or turns off these points and renders them non-tender.

From an oriental medicine standpoint, pain is thought to be caused by “stagnant” or blocked qi (chi, energy) in the meridian system. Placing a needle in the appropriate acupoint is thought to open up the dam in the flow of energy through the meridian.

There appears to be truth in both the Western and oriental views of how acupuncture works. Patients often report a sensation in some distant part of the body not connected to the point by the nervous system.

The true nature of the life force or chi remains a subject of debate. It may be electromagnetic in nature or in some other energy form(s). There appears to be some correlation between the Chinese acupuncture meridian system and the chakra energy system developed in ancient India.

Ear Acupuncture: Battlefield Acupuncture (BFA) and NADA Protocol

Battlefield Acupuncture (BFA) was developed during recent Middle East conflicts to treat injured soldiers immediately and effectively.  It was developed by Richard Niemtzow, MD, PhD, MPH, who is a medical acupuncturist and a retired flight surgeon. BFA can be an extremely effective treatment for most people dealing with acute or chronic pain.  BFA is used widely by physician and non-physician acupuncturists to treat pain problems. Clinical trials in the VA medical system and elsewhere have shown promising results.

BFA involves placing up to 5 very small “ear tacks” into one or both ears at specific locations. Frequently, there is an immediate positive response and there may be complete resolution of a patient’s pain, no matter what the cause. Having utilized the BFA protocol myself to treat hundreds of pain patients, I can vouch for its efficacy.

The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) protocol was developed during the 1970s at the Lincoln Detox Center in NYC to provide ancillary treatment support for patients with addictions. This protocol, different from BFA, consists of placing 5 needles at specific locations in the ear which helps control alcohol and drug withdrawal symptoms. A key figure and leader in the development, teaching and advocacy for NADA was psychiatrist Michael Smith, MD, DAc. He and his team trained over 10,000 healthcare providers and family members to administer this effective protocol to patients and loved ones.

In summary, acupuncture and oriental medicine can be used synergistically with osteopathic medicine to:

  • Promote health, well-being
  • Prevent illness
  • Treat medical conditions of Body-Mind-Spirit

What Other Medical Conditions can be Treated with Acupuncture?

Besides pain and addiction, acupuncture can also be used to treat illnesses that affect various organ systems such as the respiratory, gastrointestinal, reproductive, urinary, cardiovascular, and nervous systems.  Common conditions that respond very well include sinusitis, allergies, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), GERD (gastroesophageal reflux), stomach ulcers, constipation, diarrhea, spastic colon (irritable bowel syndrome), urinary incontinence, bladder and kidney infections, PMS, infertility, painful or abnormal menstruation, endometriosis, memory problems, insomnia, anxiety, depression, recovery from strokes, multiple sclerosis, and sensory disturbances such as sciatica or peripheral neuropathy (diabetics).

Acupuncture is effective in treating certain addictive disorders (eating, drugs, alcohol, smoking).  It is often very helpful in stress reduction.

Who Can Provide Acupuncture?

There are basically two groups of healthcare providers of acupuncture–physician and non-physician acupuncturists. Physician acupuncturists include both DOs and MDs and are typically trained in acupuncture after they receive their medical licensure.  In my opinion, one of the best physician training programs is given through the Helms Medical Institute in conjunction with both the UCLA and Stanford Schools of Medicine. In most states, trained physicians practice acupuncture under their medical license, although some states (such as PA) issue separate acupuncture licenses. Additional continuing education is available through the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture which sponsors an annual symposium, and through other national and international programs.

Non-physician acupuncturists obtain training through various acupuncture and oriental medical colleges located throughout the U.S. and elsewhere.  They have certification available through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Non-physician acupuncturists are designated by the titles Dipl. Ac. or Lic. Ac. after their names.  They often receive much more training in other aspects of oriental medicine such as the preparation and dispensing of Chinese herbs.

In some states, chiropractors and naturopaths can also perform acupuncture.  They usually receive training through their own continuing education programs.

Does Insurance Cover Acupuncture?

Many medical insurance plans are tied to Medicare fee schedules.  Recently it was announced that Medicare may cover acupuncture services only for chronic low back pain.  Most private health insurance and managed-care plans do not.  Acupuncture is often covered, however, for the treatment of patients who have been involved in motor vehicle accidents (Auto Insurance) and work-related injuries (Workman’s Compensation).  The amount of coverage varies on a state by state basis.