[Below are Frequently Asked Questions about TCM and acupuncture. For questions about Mindfulness Meditation, click here]
What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is its own, complete system of medicine that has evolved continuously from at least 500 BCE to the present. TCM continues to grow and modernize today, and is practiced and researched alongside Western (‘allopathic’) medicine across China. Hospitals and universities in China have departments and wings for TCM gynecology, pediatrics, oncology, dermatology, internal medicine, orthopedics and traumatology, etc.
TCM’s medical theories and concepts (e.g. “yin,” “yang,” “Qi,” etc) are very different from Western/allopathic biomedical language, but efforts around the world are ongoing to bridge the two systems to achieve the best results for patients.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture, a key component of Chinese medicine, is a natural and drug-free therapy for preventing and treating illness, and promoting health. It involves the near-painless insertion of tiny needles into specific “points” around the body.
Does acupuncture hurt? What will it feel like?
Acupuncture is usually nearly painless. Most people expect the pain to be similar to getting a flu shot, or having blood drawn. They are pleasantly surprised to find it’s not anything like this, however, as the needles are much thinner than hypodermic needles. You may feel a very slight sensation (dullness, soreness, tingling, etc.) when the needle is inserted, but if it does happen, it usually fades within seconds (like a mosquito bite, but without the itching afterward!).
The needles are usually left in for ~20-30 minutes, during which you generally feel no pain (but may feel an interesting sensation of energy moving, if you’re sensitive to it). It’s often relaxing, and some patients fall asleep on the table. At the end of the session, many report feeling much more relaxed and calmer, with less pain and tension.
Is it safe? Are there side effects to acupuncture?
Acupuncture is safe when performed by a well-trained practitioner. Most people experience no or few adverse effects. These may include minor bleeding, local soreness or bruising, feeling faint or lightheaded (to reduce this, patients are advised to eat 1-2 hours prior to acupuncture), brief nausea or dizziness especially on standing, drowsiness (caution when driving), emotional releases, and a temporary exacerbation or change of symptoms for 1-2 days.
To minimize risk of infection, acupuncturists are required to use only sterile, pre-packaged, disposable needles. Needles are never cleaned and reused, and I practice the Clean Needle Technique protocol used in the United Status.
There have been a few cases reported of pneumothorax (lung puncture) by acupuncture. This is extremely rare and easily avoided by a well-trained acupuncturist, who knows the proper depth, angle and location of points near vulnerable areas of the body.
Generally, acupuncture is safe and can usually be done in conjunction with other therapies and prescription pharmaceuticals, without significant side effects.
Is acupuncture safe during pregnancy?
Certain acupuncture points are contraindicated in pregnancy, as they may promote early labour. However, acupuncture is completely safe during pregnancy when done by a well-trained practitioner who can identify and avoid these points.
Around the world, acupuncture is often preferred during pregnancy, as it offers drug-free relief for morning sickness, heartburn, pain (e.g. back, leg, hip pain, etc.), constipation, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety and depression, vaginal discharge and itching, itchy skin, sinusitis, hypertension, edema, and breech or posterior babies. See your practitioner early in the pregnancy to assess in what areas you may need more support.
From 35 weeks onward, acupuncture can be used regularly to prepare the body for a smoother labour process, using points that relax the ligaments, soften the cervix, promote proper positioning of the baby, reduce tension, and increase the mother’s overall well-being. Certain points can be needled or pressed during labour (including by an instructed birth partner) to reduce labour pain. These points are routinely used by midwives in Europe and elsewhere, and (much more rarely) taught in some pre-natal classes here.
After birth, acupuncture, moxibustion and Chinese herbs are traditionally used to restore the birth parent’s state of energy for a faster recovery, healthy breastfeeding, and avoidance of post-partum conditions such as depression.
For more information on acupuncture in pregnancy, speak to your practitioner or see this website.
How will I feel after my treatment?
After a treatment, it is common to feel calm, relaxed and perhaps sleepy. It’s best not to schedule strenuous activities or those requiring a high level of concentration immediately after a treatment. After resting for a short period of time, most people are able to return to physically-moderate work activities.
Occasionally, symptoms may temporarily increase for a day or two before improving. This is known as a “healing reaction” and occurs when a problem is “on its way out.” Anyone who has done a nutritional cleanse may be familiar with this principle. It is not uncommon, but does not usually happen.
Finally, some people occasionally experience an ’emotional release’ during or after treatment, such as crying, and often feel lighter and calmer after the release.
How long will it take to get better?
The length of treatment needed depends on a number of factors including:
- what your goals are
- how long you’ve experienced a particular problem (generally, more chronic the problem, the longer it will take to heal)
- what your body’s strengths and weakness are
- how able and interested you are to work from different angles (e.g. emotions, food, habits, exercise, etc.)
- how frequently you can come in for treatment
I find most people will have a sense after the first 5-10 treatments whether or not they feel benefits from acupuncture. Again this will vary widely, as some people experience a marked benefit after one treatment, and other health issues will take several months of dedicated treatment to show gradual improvement.
What kind of training do acupuncturists have? How can I choose a safe acupuncturist?
Acupuncturists who are trained in Canada, in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (not Western biomedical acupuncture) tradition, generally have a minimum of 2000 hours of training, over 3 years full-time study. They should have a minimum of 500 hours in supervised clinical practice. In the US, this level of training earns a Masters degree (Canada only allows for diplomas to be granted). Many programs (such as mine) require more hours than this (I have over 3500 hours of training, and over 900 hours supervised clinical training).
Some other health professionals in Ontario (e.g. medical doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, registered massage therapists, chiropractors, naturopaths, etc.) are permitted to perform acupuncture within the scope of their own practice. A few of these professionals choose to undertake the entire (min 2000 hour) TCM training program. Otherwise, they are usually required to study at least 200 hours before being allowed to practice acupuncture. They are regulated by their own professional Colleges, and not by the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario (CTCMPAO).
How does acupuncture work?
How acupuncture works according to Western science is a million dollar question. As mentioned above, Traditional Chinese Medicine has its own theories and analysis of the body. Bridging this knowledge with Western biomedical language is a huge task: click here for a summary of scientific attempts to explain acupuncture’s efficacy.
Acupuncture works by stimulating the body’s own natural healing abilities (i.e. instead of injecting something “new” into the body, removing something surgically, over replacing the body’s natural function with an artificial intervention). For example, your body already produces many chemicals and hormones to heal from injury, fight off viruses, or maintain the proper internal temperature despite weather changes. Many drugs are actually copies of the body’s own chemicals.
However, just as we aren’t always accessing our full capacity of (for example) brain power, we aren’t always accessing our full capacity of self-healing resources within the body. When the body’s ability to regulate itself seems compromised, acupuncture can boost this enough to give the body an “edge” over whatever imbalance or illness we’re experiencing.
In Chinese medicine theory, health results from the proper balance and circulation of ‘energy’ in the body (as how Western medicine may view blood circulation or nerve conduction). Acupuncture helps unblock the stagnant energy associated with pain, poor functioning, and chronic disease. As such it improves the body’s ability to repair damage, regenerate, heal and flourish.
Will my health benefits plan cover this?
Acupuncture is not currently covered by OHIP. Many insurance plans do cover acupuncture, and most now require registration with the new acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine College (the CTCMPAO).
However, because Ontario’s regulation was so recent, some insurance plans have not recognized the new College – we still hear of out-of-date coverage requirements, such as only covering acupuncture done by a naturopath or RMT. As patients demand proper coverage, and recognition increases of the training needed to perform acupuncture properly, all insurance plans will hopefully be updated to cover TCM-trained acupuncturists. (I realize this is confusing – feel free to ask me for details!)
What health issues can acupuncture help me with?
The following information has been taken from this informative website.
As a natural form of healing, acupuncture has the following benefits:
- provides drug-free pain relief
- effectively treats a wide range of acute and chronic ailments
- treats the underlying cause of disease and illness as well as the symptoms
- provides an wholistic approach to the treatment of disease and illness, linking body, mind and emotions
- assists in the prevention against disease and illness as well as the maintenance of general well-being
Acupuncture is known to treat a wide range of disorders including:
- Neurological conditions such as headaches, migraines, difficulty sleeping, nervous tension, stroke, some forms of deafness, facial and inter-costal neuralgia, trigeminal neuralgia, some forms of paralysis, sequelae of poliomyelitis, peripheral neuropathy, noises in the ears, dizziness, and Meniere’s disease.
- Cardiovascular disorders such as high or low blood pressure, fluid retention, chest pain, angina pectoris, poor circulation, cold hands and feet, and muscle cramps.
- Respiratory conditions such as bronchial asthma, acute and chronic bronchitis, acute tonsillitis, rhinitis, sinusitis, hay fever, chronic cough, laryngitis, sore throat, influenza and the common cold.
- Digestive system disorders such as toothache, post-extraction pain, gingivitis, mouth ulcers, hiccough, spasms of the oesophagus, gastric and duodenal ulcers, gastric hyperacidity, gastritis, heartburn, hiatus hernia syndrome, flatulence, paralytic ileus, colitis, diarrhoea, constipation, haemorrhoids, liver and gall bladder disorders, and weight control.
- Urogenital disorders such as cystitis, prostatitis, orchitis, low sexual vitality, urinary retention, kidney disorders, nocturnal enuresis, and neurogenic bladder dysfunction.
- Gynaecological and obstetric disorders such as premenstrual tension, painful, heavy or irregular, or the absence of periods, abnormal uterine bleeding or discharge, hormonal disturbances, disorders associated with menopause, prolapse of the uterus or bladder, difficulty with conception, and morning sickness.
- Skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, nerve rash, herpes zoster, acne, scar tissue and resultant adhesions, hair loss and dandruff.
- Eye conditions such as visual disorders, red, sore, itchy or watery eyes, conjunctivitis, simple cataracts, myopia in children, and central retinitis.
- Musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis, sciatica, weak back, low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, tenosynovitis, shoulder and neck pain, cervicobrachial syndrome, ‘frozen shoulder’, and ‘tennis elbow‘.
- Sporting injuries such as sprained ankles and knees, cartilage problems, corking and tearing of muscles, torn ligaments and bruises.
- Psychological conditions such as depression, phobias, emotional disturbances, anxiety, nervousness and addictions such as smoking.
* The disorders above which appear in bold have been recognised by the World Health Organisation (December 1979) as having been successfully treated by acupuncture. The disorders which do not appear in bold above are other common disorders which have been found to respond well to acupuncture.
If I don’t have any major problems, can treatments still help me?
Chinese medicine and acupuncture focus on prevention and proactively managing health. We are able to assess the whole person and work with you to address subtler imbalances before they get too extreme enough to manifest as a serious health problem.
For example, regulating your menstrual cycle now (by addressing pain, PMS, clots, regularity, and length/type of flow) can help reduce the probability of later issues such as fibroids, infertility, fatigue and depression. Improving your digestion now can help reduce the chances of developing not just digestive tract issues (IBS, colitis, Crohn’s, diverticulitis, etc.), but also a wide range of seemingly unrelated issues from arthritis to cysts, fibromyalgia to even cancers.
What are some other therapies used by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?
Traditional Chinese Medicine includes acupuncture, herbs, nutrition, gua sha (scraping along the skin), cupping (cups placed on the skin via suction), moxibustion (mugwort is burned over acupuncture points), and qi gong (energy work done by the practitioner and/or exercises and breathing done by the treatment recipient).
How can TCM’s nutritional approach help me?
TCM tailors nutritional advice to the particular individual – your overall ‘constitution’ (inherent tendencies), and your current state of yin-yang balance. We use the properties of different foods and cooking methods to balance your body. For example, someone who has less “yang” or warmth in their body may be frequently cold, have looser stools and pale frequent urination, frequent colds/flus, may experience edema, water retention, or joint pain that gets worse with cold, etc. This person may benefit from foods that are ‘warmer’ in nature, and that are cooked in warmer ways (e.g. raw food may not be the best). Someone who is pale, and frequently anxious or dizzy, with dry skin and hair, may benefit from foods that benefit the “Blood” aspect of the body.
Does registration in the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario (CTCMPAO) mean that practitioner is well-trained?
Acupuncture was only regulated in Ontario in April 2013. Most practitioners across the province are Chinese-speaking professionals and the regulation process has been controversial, with many practitioners arguing they face language barriers and systemic discrimination. Some longtime TCM professionals in Ontario have closed businesses because of this, and others have simply not registered. These professionals are often highly trained and experienced, so at this point registration does not mean a practitioner is a safer option for the consumer.
It is worth noting that other health practitioners (e.g. physiotherapists, chiropractors, etc.) have registered in the CTCMPAO, under the grandparenting clause. This means: registration with the CTCMPAO does not necessarily mean a practitioner has undertaken extensive acupuncture training (perhaps 200 hours). It is best to ask your practitioner what training and clinical supervision they have had in acupuncture.
What should I consider in choosing an acupuncturist?
Don’t hesitate to ask about the length of your acupuncturist’s training, or their experience working with patients such as yourself (i.e. your particular health needs, but also other needs you may have such as being able to bring your emotional side into the conversation). If finances are an obstacle, you may look for an acupuncturist that offers a sliding scale, or explore the benefits of community-style acupuncture. If you’re particularly interested in exploring nutritional, herbal, or exercise advice, you can ask if that’s something they typically include in their practice. Ultimately, look for someone who will listen to and work with you respectfully in your healing journey.