Dr. George Decker didn’t always offer acupuncture at his Olathe office. But then his wife had Lasik surgery, which caused her severe and chronic dryness in her eyes. For 17 months, she experienced pain and discomfort to such an extent that she applied eye drops every 30 seconds. When flying, she carried a special note through security because her vital stash of drops always exceeded the 3-ounce liquid allowance.
When nothing else helped, she tried acupuncture—and the dryness was gone after four treatments. Now, Decker has joined an increasing number of chiropractors who have become licensed in acupuncture, a telling sign of Western medicine beginning to embrace a millennia-old Asian practice.
However, doctors are only part of the process. Although 25 percent of the world’s population uses acupuncture as its primary form of care, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), acupuncture still is a therapy “shrouded in mystery” to many people, Decker says. Here, three local acupuncturists break down common misconceptions.
Misconception: Acupuncture isn’t effective.
Truth: The WHO recognizes more than 40 diseases for which clinical trials have proven acupuncture effective. These include: depression, headache, hypertension, hypotension, knee pain, low back pain, breeched fetus, morning sickness, toothache, neck pain, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, stroke and tennis elbow. Dozens of other conditions—including infertility, cancer, addiction and obesity—have demonstrated response to acupuncture but haven’t yet been explicitly proven.
Acupuncture is defined as the insertion of very fine needles into the body at specific “acupoints.” More than 1,000 points are located on the body along certain “meridians,” or pathways of energy, which correspond to various ailments. The meridians carry impulses, which the Chinese call qi, or energy. Acupuncture serves to release endorphins and serotonin and promote neuroendocrine function, as well as increase circulation at the acupoints. Still, Western medicine can’t yet explain how acupuncture works. “We don’t know exactly how it happens, but we know it does happen,” Decker says.
Misconception: Acupuncture hurts.
Truth: Most patients feel, at maximum, a slight pressure or pinch. Many times, patients don’t feel the needles at all—in fact, it’s common for people to fall asleep during a session. “Typically, [standard acupuncture] needles are shaped like a bullet or arrow,” says Sue McComb, owner of Acupuncture for Optimal Health. “They’re meant to enter the epidermis through a pore; it just spreads that hole open wider.” Hypodermic needles, on the other hand, are meant to break the skin in order to administer injection.
Misconception: Acupuncture is a cult, or it has religious aspects.
Truth: “Acupuncture is secular and unattached to any particular religious dogma,” McComb says. The uncertainty of how exactly acupuncture works, along with this misconception, could be what makes much of the Western world still wary of acupuncture as primary medicine. “People think it’s mystical and weird,” Decker says. “But it’s physiological.”
Misconception: Acupuncture is a last resort for pain or ailments.
Truth: “A lot of people don’t understand how acupuncture can make you stay healthy,” McComb says. “It keeps your energy balanced and can be a more regular occurrence, not just for when you have pain.” She quotes Paracelsus: “‘Within every human being is a special heaven, whole and unbroken.’ That’s what optimal health is. It’s my job to help [patients] achieve, regain and/or maintain it.”
When a patient comes for acupuncture, the acupuncturist conducts two tests to assess internal balance, according to Dr. Mary Zhang of Chinese Medicine Clinic, a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner specializing in women’s reproductive illness. A pulse test, in which the acupuncturist analyzes the way the heartbeat passes through three different points on the patient’s arms, helps determine how energy is flowing and which organs are potentially experiencing energy deficiencies or excesses.
A tongue test is used for diagnosing disease, Zhang says. “Different tongue body colors, shapes and coatings indicate specific problems within a person’s body.” After determining problem areas, acupuncturists use the needles to facilitate energy flow, allowing acupuncture to treat and prevent illness and contribute to a holistic wellness approach.
Misconception: There’s no way to determine who is qualified to practice acupuncture.
Truth: Acupuncture is licensed and regulated in more than 40 states. McComb trained as an apprentice, completing 1,000 hours a year for four years, before becoming nationally certified and licensed in Missouri (Kansas is one of seven states without acupuncture licensing). Chiropractors or medical doctors like Decker often take only 100 or 200 hours of training in Traditional Chinese Medicine because of their previous medical knowledge base.
When looking for an acupuncturist, McComb suggests searching for a certified practitioner on the NCCAOM website, NCCAOM.org. From there, word-of-mouth recommendations are usually reliable, and it’s always an option to set up an interview with the acupuncturist. During the conversation, Decker adds, “Ask about the results they’ve had with various clients,” to see whether they have specialized previous knowledge about your condition.