Whilst some people may think of acupuncture as a new-age wellness practice, the first documentation of the treatment was actually recorded in The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine — a book dating back to 100 BCE.
This ancient text was written by Chinese emperor Huangdi Neijing and describes acupuncture as “an organised system of diagnosis and treatment”. According to one report, the practice of acupuncture was honed and passed down over centuries until it became common practice in traditional Chinese medicine, alongside diet, herbs and massage.
Now, due to globalisation, acupuncture is a commonly used form of complementary and alternative medicine. So, how exactly does this ancient Chinese practice work?
Dr Ellen Freeman is an acupuncturist with a Bachelor of Health Science majoring in Chinese medicine from the Endeavour College of Natural Health, the largest private higher education provider of natural medicine courses in the southern hemisphere. “Acupuncture is believed to work by restoring or maintaining the balance of Qi or energy," Freeman tells Refinery29 Australia. "When the body’s Qi is balanced, the body is healthy.”
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe that the flow of Qi can "become stagnated or deficient", which then results in illness or pain. "By stimulating the body’s innate healing response [with acupuncture], balance can be achieved," says Freeman.
What does a typical acupuncture treatment involve?
Each acupuncture treatment is specifically tailored to your current health goals, meaning that no two treatments are the same.
According to Freeman, a typical acupuncture session would first involve a "comprehensive intake interview" between the patient and practitioner to discuss any health concerns.
They'll ask you about your health, including sleep, digestion, emotions and energy levels as well as any past and current health issues. Next, your acupuncturist will take your pulse (on both wrists) and observe your tongue. "These are two important components of diagnosis for a practitioner and help us gain a greater understanding of your overall health," says Freeman.
Next, a practitioner inserts fine, sterile pins into specific "meridians" or pathways around the body. By putting the needles into these points, acupuncturists believe that a person's energy or Qi will be restored. Freeman notes that the number of pins used in a session (and whether you'll be facing up or down while they are administered) depends on the person and their treatment.
Once the required number of pins have been inserted, the patient then relaxes for about thirty minutes before they are removed. Some practitioners may also incorporate a combination of cupping, gua sha, moxibustion, or infrared heat lamp application into the treatment.
Your pins are then removed and your practitioner will discuss your ongoing treatment plan.
What are the benefits of acupuncture?
If you’ve never had acupuncture before, this may all sound quite daunting — but many people swear by it.
Sunshine Coast-based editor, Bree Grant has been receiving acupuncture for a little over a year and was recommended to try the practice by her mum.
“I’ve found getting regular acupuncture all over my body has helped decrease the way I hold tension, my muscle recovery after working out is quicker and easier, and I find myself less anxious,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
“When I get regular acupuncture in my face and jaw, I notice my jaw is less tense, my skin is less puffy and any little lines that have started to appear are often minimised.”
Freeman says that these results are attributed to “several simultaneous reactions”.
“Acupuncture has been shown to promote increased blood flow, stimulate the release of neurotransmitters and hormones, and the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (AKA your rest and digest state), resulting in very deep relaxation.”
Freeman notes that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system and, as a result, may improve the body’s natural healing abilities.
“Regular acupuncture treatments may result in improved sleep and digestion, a reduction in pain, discomfort and stress levels, and promote an overall feeling of relaxation and greater well-being,” says Freeman.
Is acupuncture backed by science?
According to Freeman, acupuncture and Chinese medicine’s popularity has “increased exponentially” in recent years. This has created a desire and need for more clinical trials. However, due to the nature of the practice (and the fact that no two treatments or patients are the same) trials around the efficacy of acupuncture can be hard to complete.
“There is still a rising number of clinical trials performed each year to ensure the development of acupuncture aligns with the popularity of the medicine; resulting in safe and well-researched treatment methods,” says Freeman.
For anyone seeking acupuncture, it's important to speak with a healthcare practitioner, to work out if the practice is suitable for you and your specific health concerns.
“Some patients may need special care during their treatment,” says Freeman. “Particularly if they have a bleeding disorder, are immunocompromised, pregnant or have a pacemaker.
"Your registered acupuncturist will take the time to conduct a thorough pre-treatment interview, outlining your current health concerns and previous conditions to ensure your treatment will be as safe as possible.”
Looking for a change of career? Endeavour College of Natural Health has a range of short and long courses on offer. Find out more here.
Please note: The information contained within this article is general in nature and should not be relied upon in place of medical advice that is specific to your health needs. If you are interested in pursuing acupuncture, we recommend that you consult your GP or another medical practitioner before receiving the treatment, to ensure this treatment is suitable for you.