Discover the Amazing Healing (and Beauty) Powers of Acupuncture

One of the interesting things about acupuncture is that it truly is ancient. It was developed from the start by rejecting superstition and pursuing rational thinking. The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon (黄帝内经, Huangdi Neijing, 황제내경), which was first compiled around 475-222 BC, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage, contains 800,000 Chinese characters and covers numerous details on acupuncture methods, sites, depth of penetration, and speed of needle penetration and removal, as well as discussing the indications/contraindications for acupuncture and the appropriate length of time for treatment depending on the patient’s condition.

The sheer number of years that acupuncture has been studied and constantly improved is astounding. Among physical therapies in Eastern medicine, acupuncture has long been mainstream. And there are many other physical therapies that it can be effective like moxibustion(뜸) or negative cupping(부항). In fact acupuncture, and eastern medicine in general, is mainly about wellness maintenance and restoring balance before severe disease.

All of us can recall the times when we were neither ill nor healthy, that gray area where you cannot start western medicine therapy but still you feel not quite well. For example, your blood pressure is not normal but it’s too early to start taking anti-hypertensive drugs. Your thyroid hormone level is a little bit high or low, but your western doctor just says, “Let’s wait.” Even though you are tired and have no appetite, your health screening test results are all within a normal range. Eastern medicine, including acupuncture, has merit in these gray zones and offers solutions.

How Acupuncture Cures Illness

How exactly does acupuncture work? There are just three words to keep in mind: “local”, “segmental,” and “general.” Now you are a semi-specialist in acupuncture.

Local Effect

To start, local effect is simple to comprehend. Pain subsides at the site of the needling point. Direct needling on the pain area releases substances known as vasodilators and other chemicals, which relax blood vessels and improve blood circulation. Muscles or fascia can also relax as a local effect. (That’s why acupuncture balances facial asymmetries!) Additionally, this effect includes accelerating bone and soft tissue recovery.

Segmental Effect

Second, segmental effect means the relief of symptoms at another site by needling a point that shares a spinal nerve. It functions through the needling of the myotome/sclerotome or dermatome (segment) of the shared spinal nerve, even though it’s not precisely at the pain or spasm location. Because your stomach and back share the same spinal nerve, needling your back relieves stomach cramps, for instance. 

General Effect

Finally, a general effect has an impact on your brain. Your Korean medicine doctors will stimulate the secretion of numerous neuropeptides and monoamines by performing acupuncture on your fingers or toes. In essence, acupuncture at a distant site induces a release of hormones and signals messengers to alter the dysfunctional brain. Your brain is more likely to perceive pain sensitively and to experience depression if you suffer chronic pain.

General effect changes this tendency via brain plasticity. Acupuncture can also help insomnia, anxiety, and hypertension by regulating the autonomic nervous system. It is also known to have an anti-inflammatory response via the vagal-adrenal axis.

Which Illnesses Are Best Served with Acupuncture

Acupuncture is recommended if you have headaches, backaches, shoulder pain, neck pain, or knee pain. It also helps if you have mood disorders, gastrointestinal problems, or sleep disorders, or if you are pregnant and experiencing morning sickness. There’s also been some success as an effective treatment for opioid abuse.

For aromatase inhibitor-related joint pain, general cancer pain, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy and surgical pain, acupuncture is recommended.

If you have had knee surgery, electroacupuncture is recommended as it has been shown to accelerate healing in bone tissue and the surrounding soft tissue, as well as to reduce pain and improve joint function and mobility. 

Beauty Acupuncture

Beauty acupuncture was likely first discovered by happy accident. KMDs performed multiple needling on the face repeatedly for several sessions to treat facial paralysis (Bell’s Palsy). They noticed that the face that had acupuncture treatment displayed a healthy complexion, clear skin tone, reduced edema, relaxed facial muscles, and a face-lift. Esthetic effects were an unintended side effect for the treatment of facial palsy!

There are no reported adverse effects other than slight pain and/or bruises that don’t last long. And what’s more, this kind of beauty acupuncture can relieve your headache, insomnia, temporomandibular joint malfunction, and dry eyes. (Dry eyes! I insist that acupuncture be tried by everyone with dry eyes.)

Is Acupuncture Painful?

It is a very complicated question. Ça dépend! Sometimes you may not experience pain when being needled because your nociception ability is declined. In this case, your needling pain returns as your skin sensation is restored, and you would welcome the discomfort. You could experience acupuncture as being more painful than usual when you are exhausted or nervous. Or your KMD might penetrate your skin too fast and cause extra pain. 

Sometimes painful needling is essential for the treatment. Otherwise gentle needing will do. Don’t hesitate to ask your KMD whether painful acupuncture is inevitable or not. Today’s single-use acupuncture needles have a variety of thicknesses and lengths, therefore, your KMD can choose the right needle based on your fear or curiosity.

Finding a Good Korean Medicine Doctor

To be a KMD, you must enroll in a traditional Korean medicine college, which has a 6-year curriculum. There are no detours or shortcuts in Korea. During the past few decades, only the top academic candidates have been admitted to these traditional Korean medicine colleges (한의과대학). The education and training received are of exceptionally high caliber so the chances of encountering a fraudulent doctor at a reputable Korean medicine clinic (한의원) are quite slim.

Yet there are always differences among doctors. You should make sure that the KMD asks you proper questions, pays close attention to what you say, and examines you to test your overall health. The KMD should respond to your inquiries in a sincere and trustworthy manner.

Nahee Kim is a Doctor of Traditional Korean Medicine KMD and lives in South Korea. She holds a BS in Oceanography from Seoul National University and a BS and MS in Traditional Korean Medicine from Kyunghee University. She is an IBCLC as well and instructs KMDs on breastfeeding. She is currently a climate activist fighting against the reclamation of tidal flats in Saemangeum area. She is a painter and a novice in ballet, and she enjoys reading and writing science fiction.

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