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You stick needles on my arm and hand to treat headaches?! What else can acupuncture do?

Before you stare back at me in disbelief, YES...I do usually stick a set of needles on your hand. I may add a few on the same arm along the forearm and elbow. And while I am at it, sometimes I may decide to use one or two on your feet and legs. And that's before I even actually use any needles on your head.

Of course, I'll have to take your pulse and have a look at your tongue before I decide exactly where on your hand, leg or foot I will acupuncture the points that I will be using to treat you.

"What else can acupuncture treat (besides headaches)?"

Its a question I am asked as often as "How does acupuncture actually work?" (which will probably require a totally separate blog entry to answer). Its also a question that brings me back down to earth as I sometimes forget and assume that everyone who walks into the clinic knows what acupuncture does and what it treats.

I sometimes need to be reminded that its always a good idea to help folks understand the basics and bring them up to speed on the conditions that acupuncture can help alleviate.

I could list them like so:

  • headaches

  • stomach pain

  • GERD and acid reflux

  • painful periods

  • infertility

  • colds and flus

  • neck pain

  • back pain

  • dermatitis and eczema

  • arthritis

  • anxiety

  • ear infections

  • chronic RSIs

  • knee pain

  • assists in IVF

  • insomnia

  • constipation

  • IBS

  • menopause

  • managing the symptoms of depression

  • acne (especially if its related to stress, poor digestion or hormonal changes)

(And that's only just a short list of some of things that acupuncture can help with.)

However just so you get an idea of how acupuncture can help with some of these health issues, I thought I would take two conditions that I commonly encounter in the clinic from this list and go into a little more detail on what the acupuncture treatment does to alleviate and ease some of the symptoms of them.

1. GERD and acid reflux

Most people know that acupuncture helps with pain. But what I sometimes forget is that that not everybody is aware that acupuncture can help with internal conditions like acid reflux (or other digestive issues) for instance. This only dawned on me when patients who came in originally for pain also asked if acupuncture treatments would help them with digestive problems.

I do encounter acid reflux and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) quite often and it tends to resolve with regular weekly treatments for a period of anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks. Obviously complicating factors like stomach ulcers or anxiety will need to be factored in, as these conditions are also commonly seen occurring with acid reflux and will also require additional attention, time and treatment.

I usually take a patient's pulse on both wrists and have a look at their tongue first. These two diagnostics (alongside questions asked that relate to their condition) help me to form an idea of where the disease is located (which meridian(s) is/are affected) and what points I will be able to select on those affected channels to needle.

Generally conditions relating to digestion are treated along the Stomach, Spleen, Percardium and Liver Meridians. Other meridians may be selected too depending on what symptoms (that are specific to the patient) show up in this patient's individual constitution. Acupuncture points that are to be needled are then selected along these channels and the patient is given time to rest and relax while the needles do their work.

The acupuncture needles tend to break any blockages that may manifest along the affected or "sick" meridians. The blockages to qi and blood flow along the channel is what causes the condition to begin with in the first place. When the points are needled on that specific meridian, qi flows more vigorously and breaks the areas of stagnation that have occurred on the channel and caused the condition to manifest.

In the case of GERD and acid reflux, the qi blockage causes qi to flow the wrong way on the Stomach channel. Stomach channel qi should naturally flow downwards to facilitate the movement of food downwards to the stomach where it is broken down, and then moves downwards to the small intestine and large intestine where the food particles are separated and either absorbed into the bloodstream or, passed further down into the colon where it awaits further excretion as waste.

Qi flowing upwards the wrong way means that predigested food is pushed upwards to the esophagus and throat where the acid starts causing pain, belching and a feeling of pressure pushing upwards at the opening of the stomach. The insertion of the needles along the Stomach (and to some extent, Spleen, Liver and Pericardium meridians) help to redirect this flow of qi back to its natural course downwards.

Most patients report relief from belching, sour regurgitation, pain in the esophageal region (right around the base of the sternum) and gnawing burning pain as soon as their first or second treatments have commenced. By the end of their second or third week, most are able to eat (healthily of course) their daily meals again without a lot of painful gas, burping or cramping pain that they would have experienced previously, prior to treatments.

2. Depression and Anxiety

A lot of people do ask whether acupuncture can help ease the symptoms of depression. There are a lot of people who do have to manage daily life, work, taking care of themselves and their families and who need help with depression or anxiety medication. For some, its hard to stick to a daily medication schedule. For others, they are managing ok and are looking for ways to slowly decrease the amount of antidepressants that they are taking.

I usually sit down and ask my patients who are looking for ways to better manage their symptoms or ways to slowly wean themselves off medication what their goals are and what they hope to achieve with acupuncture and from there, we start a plan to help them manage daily life (usually treating for anxiety) so that they don't skip their antidepressant medications when they are overwhelmed or, I work out a schedule in which they come in for acupuncture treatments during the week as they slowly decrease their medication dosages. This is usually done on a carefully monitored schedule and I usually ask my patients to make sure that they have full permission from their GPs (or therapists) and that the dosages are reduced at a slow and measured pace.

After taking their pulse and looking at their tongue, a diagnosis is given and the meridians that are affected are selected for treatment (i.e. specific acupuncture points along the selected "sick channels" are chosen to be needled). Generally speaking the meridians most often affected in cases of Depression and/or Anxiety fall on the Liver and Gallbladder, and sometimes also the Heart, the Spleen and Pericardium meridians. These meridians tend to stagnate often, thereby causing obstructions and blockages in the flow of qi and blood along these channels.

Stagnation can be thought of as something similar to a traffic jam along a major road or freeway. When traffic comes to a standstill for too long, you can imagine the drivers that are stuck on that route feeling anxious, frustrated, and perhaps even angry and irritated.

This is exactly the sort of situation that happens on these channels when qi flow gets impaired by chronic exposure to the daily stresses of work schedules and deadlines, the daily things that come up in one's family life, and personal mental stresses that could have been carried over from personal life and one's own personal history.

Energy or qi stagnates and emotions get stuck because they cannot be properly expressed and irritation, frustration and stuffed emotions block the natural flow of qi and depression and anxiety start to manifest.

Needling specific acupuncture points on the affected meridian tend to open up that channel and allow the qi to flow in a more natural and unimpeded state. Needling can be thought of as analogous to opening up a detour or an exit on the jammed up freeway. The traffic starts to flow with more efficiency and individual driver's frustrations and tempers start to ease and cool off.

Its hard to say how long a patient will take to wean themselves off their antidepressants as this will depend on the dosage to begin with, how severe their symptoms are and also, factors such as whether they are also seeking therapy in conjunction with their medication or not. I can say though, that after the first three to four weeks at a frequency of at least two acupuncture treatments a week, most patients report a significant decrease in disruptions and discomfort to their personal lives as they slowly decrease their antidepressant dosages.

As for managing symptoms, it takes around two weeks at a treatment frequency of one to two treatments a week for patients to report a feeling of less anxiety and less panic over managing the periods of stress that they may encounter in their daily lives.

For the most part, acupuncture is a relaxing and pleasant treatment for most internal conditions and is not neccessarily limited to just treating pain conditions (which it is no doubt really good for!). It is excellent for several internal and systemic conditions (such as that listed above) as well! If anyone asks you "what else does acupuncture treat?" Point them over to this page!

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