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Exploring Alternative Medicine - Part 1 of 2 on Acupuncture

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Aug 12, 2013

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumGuest Contributor: Catherine Udomsak, SPT

Exploring Alternative Medicine: Acupuncture. Part 1 of 2


One of the most widely practiced and a controversial form of alternative medicine used today is acupuncture. Presently, I have several patients using this modality for a wide variety of indications including; smoking cessation, whiplash pain, headaches, spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, and lower back pain.

Catherine Udomsak, SPT

Catherine Udomsak, SPT

Brief History of Acupuncture

Traditional acupuncture technique involves inserting thin needles of varying lengths into the skin to relieve pain and other symptoms of illness. It is an ancient form of healing originating from China where it has been in use for over 2,000 years. In China, acupuncture is commonly accepted and is even believed to cure disease and illness. This practice is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and its theory is based on the concept that bodily functions are regulated by a vital life force known as “Qi”.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, channels known as meridians assist the flow of Qi, pronounced chee, throughout the body. TCM purports that there are 12 major meridians in the human body, which connect to the bodily organs and represent an internal system of communication between the organs. Along the meridians are various acupuncture points, or acupoints. Originally, there were only 365 acupoints corresponding to the number of days in a year. However, overtime the number of acupoints has greatly increased.  According to Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, illness occurs when the energy flow along one or more meridians is blocked or out of balance. From a “purist” perspective, the traditional purpose of acupuncture is to restore the balance to the energy flow and thus alleviate sickness.

Although it was commonly used throughout China, the popularity of acupuncture declined in the 17th century and it became regarded as superstition.  As knowledge of Western medicine spread throughout China, acupuncture continued to fall out of favor until it was outlawed in 1929.  However in 1949, due in great part to a widespread shortage of modern medical practitioners, acupuncture and other forms of traditional medicine were reinstated as a means to provide health to the massive population. The spread of acupuncture to other countries took place over years and it traveled by different methods. Jesuit missionaries who visited China in the 16th century were the first to carry knowledge of acupuncture to Europe. The interest in acupuncture in America occurred in 1971.  James Reston, a reporter accompanying president Nixon to China, received acupuncture after an emergency appendectomy and experienced symptomatic relief.  His report to the US media resulted in widespread curiosity throughout the country and led to a team of US physicians making a tour to China to learn about the ancient practice. In 1972, the National Institute of Health gave its first grant to study acupuncture and the first legal acupuncture center was established.

Research on Acupuncture

Since the initial introduction of acupuncture in the US there has been a controversial debate over the effectiveness of acupuncture and the lack of solid scientific evidence.  There have been a number of studies exploring the biomechanics behind acupuncture and unfortunately the exact science of how it works still remains unknown. Researchers have suggested several biological effects the may account for acupuncture’s effectiveness. These explanations include the release in the brain and spinal cord of chemicals that subdue pain and transmit messages to nerves and muscles.  Studies suggest that the needle stimulation causes the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters, which produce an analgesic effect.  Other explanations include hormonal changes as well as increases in cerebral blood flow and immune function. Still, other researchers are not convinced and believe that acupuncture works via the placebo effect.

Although the science behind acupuncture remains foggy, the demand for it remains and supporters claim that acupuncture can be used to treat physical illness, especially pain and muscle spasms.  In addition, acupuncture has even been used to treat addiction and mental illness.  While most people only know of traditional acupuncture involving thin needles, there are many other methods used to deliver acupuncture.  All techniques are designed to relieve pain and other symptoms of illness.  Next week’s column will compare the different techniques and further explore who could benefit from acupuncture treatment.

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

Guest Contributor: Catherine Udomsak, SPT, Temple University, Doctor of Physical Therapy 2014. Catherine, a native of Clarks Summit, PA, is an intern at Mackarey & Mackarey Physical Therapy Consultants, LLC and is the 2013 recipient of the Dr. Paul Mackarey Physical Therapy Health Care Journalism Award.

NEXT MONDAY – Read Acupuncture – Part 2; Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum” in the Scranton Times-Tribune. This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College.