Part II: Holistic Lifestyle- WHAT IS ACUPUNCTURE REALLY?
The following is an interview recorded on Friday, January 16th at 1:30 pm. My questions are in the un-italicized text. Responses by Jennifer are italicized.
I am very excited to be sitting down with acupuncturist, Jennifer Stang. Jennifer started her acupuncture career in New York where she attended Tri-State College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She’s always been fascinated by the human body and gained a keen interest in holistic healthcare after undergraduate school. Her passion is to help clients feel their best and make acupuncture, a treatment method that is over 3,000 years old, well understood and utilized by Americans in the 21st century.
Hi Jamie, thanks for having me today.
Thank you for coming and speaking to me about this very important topic that I think is still elusive even though it is a bit more common than it was, say 10 or 15 years ago. So let’s start by asking why acupuncture was of interest to you?
I actually got treated myself with acupuncture for an irregular menstrual cycle, so it was my own personal success with acupuncture that really made me interested in going back to graduate school for it. I was pretty surprised at how many elements, illnesses and ailments that acupuncture could help. And I just became completely fascinated with it.
Was that your only experience with acupuncture that caused you to take that leap?
Well, I had my first introduction to acupuncture when I worked on a research study at a psychiatric hospital. All the participants had OCD- obsessive compulsive disorder and a number of the participants were using acupuncture in conjunction with traditional medicine- including formal therapy, cognitive therapy and medications. We were finding that the addition of acupuncture was actually helping people more than in those that didn’t use it. So that was my first introduction to realizing that acupuncture was a very useful and beneficial treatment. We were also finding that it was helping with depression.
Wow, that’s wonderful. So many people are familiar with the term acupuncture but don’t really know what it is. Would you explain exactly what acupuncture is?
I’ll do my best (laugh). It is a medical treatment where we use sterile, single-use needles. They are very, very thin, you could probably fit about 40 of these into one hypodermic needle. A lot of people get concerned about the size of the needle and how it’s going to feel to them.
That’s an interesting fun fact.
Yeah. So, we insert these needles in to very precise points on the body, which we call acupuncture points. And these acupuncture points fall on what acupuncturists call, meridians or channels. We believe that energy flows through these channels; some people would also say its blood flow. So we are trying to move that energy where it might be blocked or increase blood flow to a certain area.
That was very well put. Cool. So I know this is a loaded question but would you name some of the conditions or diseases that acupuncture can treat? Some of the one’s that people might not be familiar with.
So in terms of familiarity, most people are aware that acupuncture works for pain management. This could be any type of pain condition, from back pain to headaches to menstrual cramping. So that is really the number one reason why people come in, and this includes pre- and post- operative pain. Then secondary is women’s health issues or hormonal issues. Most often we see females with these issue but we can also help men. This could include fertility problems, irregular menstrual cycles, and postmenopausal symptoms. Acupuncture can also help with anxiety, depression and other emotional imbalances. It is also useful for immune functioning, like allergy issues, autoimmune conditions and a number of other ailments.
So that is a very broad spectrum of illnesses and so my question is, in your opinion, would you say that patients who receive regular acupuncture for whatever ails them, would then not need traditional medical means, like pharmaceutical medication or surgical interventions, etcetera to control or calm their specific condition?
So that is a loaded question, because that will vary from person to person. But, that is definitely the hope or goal, and I have seen it in a lot of cases where, eventually, medications aren’t needed. Sometimes people come in when something is really acute and we can solve the problem before it actually becomes an issue where they need medication or other western interventions. And other times, it’s in conjunction with those therapies to make sure that the condition doesn’t get worse.
And what is the most dramatic case of that you’ve seen, where the patient is quite ill and decides to take an acupuncture route and then no longer needed a western approach.
Well I think some of the most striking cases come with fertility problems because I do a lot of treatments for women who have what’s called, unexplained infertility. Because of the hormones women are often put on and pressure many women feel, it can be a very stressful time. I’ve found that when people take a break from the conventional types of treatment and come in for acupuncture for a few months, many women get pregnant naturally. It’s really amazing and encouraging. Sometimes we do acupuncture in conjunction with conventional treatments to enhance chances of conception. I’ve also seen cases where women don’t need to be on medications or hormones when using acupuncture, even if they have a history of repeated miscarriage. They continue with the acupuncture instead of drugs and can be very, very helpful and successful.
What about something like cancer? Any examples of how cancer has been turned around?
I’ve only treated a handful of cancer patients, personally. And I have not found that acupuncture alone would be a cure for those cancer patients but I’m a really big believer that when you change dietary habits and use other holistic modalities like acupuncture, that it can be a really great avenue for people, especially if they don’t want conventional chemotherapy or radiation. I have heard some acupuncturists say that it works wonderfully for cancer patients in terms of trying to minimize the growth of the tumor or shrinking the tumor but I have only helped people with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and helped them to feel better and improve their overall quality of life.
Yeah. I know that is a tough one.
Most people who shy away from acupuncture would say that it involves needles and needles hurt. What do you say to that?
Well I do understand why people would be concerned about that. I don’t think that most people really love needles. But I would say most people, especially with traditional acupuncture, don’t feel much of a sensation at all, especially not a pain sensation. Because everyone’s perception or nervous system is different, you may feel the insertion into a point, potentially, but after that, you shouldn’t feel too much of anything with traditional acupuncture. Most people report having a good feeling, improved blood flow or a heaviness over their body, but not the needle itself or discomfort from the needle. And I think what is most important is that people find a practitioner that they are comfortable with so that they will relax and enjoy the experience.
Would you say that it is actually a comfortable procedure?
Yes, in fact, I’ve only had one person in the years that I’ve been practicing, that I wasn’t able to treat because of her fear of needles. I had to tell her that acupuncture is probably not the best treatment method for her because she was so concerned and I never inserted a needle into her body due to her anxiety. So physical therapy or another form of manual therapy may have been a better option for that individual. But most people actually love the experience and love coming back, even kids!
And I will add my two cents, I love the experience, it’s very calming, it’s very relaxing. Even if it weren’t doing something internal, which I know it is, just to have an hour to sit and do nothing, and be relaxed and take a break and breathe is invaluable. So it is definitely worth trying.
Okay. So, let’s move on. There are many forms of acupuncture, as I have learned. Would you discuss some of them and the benefits to each?
I will try to explain this the best I can. So, first off, most acupuncturists try to accomplish the same thing, where we are trying to get the body to heal itself, to guide the body to do its job. There is no magic here. But it all starts with Traditional Chinese Acupuncture, which we know from ancient texts, is the first form of acupuncture that was developed and is over 3,000 years old. In terms of how I would describe TCM or Traditional Chinese Acupuncture, would be practitioners often use a thicker needle, so that you get a stronger stimulation, which is called de qi, and they would use about 15 to 20 points on those meridians that we talked about before, with the goal of moving qi, or what many people call blood flow today.
Then you have Japanese acupuncture. Practitioners use thinner needles and they don’t stimulate as many points. So the same channels or meridians are stimulated but a difference in how many points might be used, they may use fewer points and they don’t stimulate it nearly as heavily. Diagnostically, in Traditional Chinese acupuncture, we use what you call a tongue and pulse diagnosis. So we look at someone’s tongue and take their pulse. And those are the main avenues along with asking the patient specifically about their symptoms and medical history, to decide which points to use and what the diagnosis will be. In Japanese acupuncture, abdominal palpation is predominantly used to determine which points to stimulate.
The other form of acupuncture that I’m really familiar with, is what you call Acupuncture Physical Medicine or what may be referred to in western medicine as trigger point dry needling. In Acupuncture Physical Medicine we actually combine Traditional acupuncture points with trigger point therapy. These trigger points might not be exactly on those channels but instead we are going into the muscle itself and trying to release the muscle, to try to get it to relax. This type of treatment can help with nerve impingement, pain-related conditions and even emotional conditions since our bodies and muscles are affected by our emotions.
What kinds of emotional conditions?
Anger, sadness- often we tend to hold these things inside and it can lead to muscle constriction or trigger points in our bodies and then our bodies can’t process things as well as it should. So, by releasing those areas, it often will help with a person’s symptoms.
So when was this type of acupuncture developed? And I’m curious as someone who comes from a physical medicine and rehabilitation medical background, and am very familiar with trigger point injections and dry needling, but was not aware that it was coupled with acupuncture, so when did this happen?
This specifically was developed by Mark Seem, who, in the late 1980’s combined classic acupuncture with trigger points. Janet Travell is probably the most famous trigger point researcher and doctor. She was the first to document most trigger points and how to inject them. Mark Seem studied with Janet Travell and then combined traditional acupuncture with trigger point therapy. When we talk about different forms of acupuncture they all go back to Traditional Chinese acupuncture, so we are talking about points on those main meridians to try to help guide the body back into balance. So while it’s important to release structural or muscular issues that we may have, it’s also important to go deeper and release some of the energetic blockages that occur. So by combining the two, you often get a wonderful outcome.
I learn something new every day.
And then lastly auricular acupuncture is usually combined with any of the other styles of acupuncture. This is when we insert needles on the ear. There are about 300 points in the ear itself so it’s almost like its own little microsystem of the body. So often those points are combined with Traditional Chinese acupuncture, Japanese acupuncture or even Acupuncture Physical Medicine.
When I think of auricular acupuncture, I think of its use with addictions, weight loss. Is that what we are talking about?
It is absolutely still used that way and by itself for addiction. Practitioners will use 5 points in the ear that have been researched and we know can help with withdrawal symptoms, physiological withdrawal symptoms, not necessarily the psychological component. So, yes, that is how it is heavily used. But even beyond that, certain auricular points help to calm the body very quickly. In fact, there is one point in particular that is used in almost every treatment if people are going to use auricular points. And it helps, overall, to just calm the body and put the body into a relaxed state, which is where I believe acupuncture really shines. I think it really helps the body, in terms of the stress response, since most of us are overly stressed and we don’t even realize it. I think that is where the beauty and magic of acupuncture comes in, in that it allows the body to get in that relaxed state so that it can do its job.
I would agree with that, 100 percent. Okay, so let’s switch to herbal remedies and their usefulness. How often they need to be used with acupuncture? Do they have to be used with acupuncture? And maybe addressing some of the concerns people may have about herbal remedies and contraindications, toxicity around herbals. I know that is a loaded question but do the best you can.
Yes. Please let me know if I miss anything. So, in terms of safety, herbal formulas, when prescribed by a licensed practitioner, are extremely safe. The ones that are most commonly used have been around for thousands of years. It’s true that some of the herbs used in Chinese medicine, even if they are plant based herbals, can be dangerous in large quantities or if not cooked properly, but in terms of Chinese herbal therapy, proper cooking methods and doses have been documented and herbals are used in small doses and have a very specific preparation. So when you go to a licensed practitioner, there should be no danger involved with taking them. You know, there are many different ways of taking herbal formulas, one is in capsule or tablet form and these are highly regulated now. You can actually track each bottle and see where the herbs came from, making sure you’re getting exactly what it says you are getting. The main manufacturing companies are highly regulated now, probably more than most things that you get over the counter. When comparing to pharmaceutical drugs, I would say herbal formulas are safer since most pharmaceuticals are only researched for a few years and then we find out 10 or 15 years later once they’ve been out on the market, whether they are dangerous or not.
These formulas have been used for thousands of years and most practitioners don’t tend to tamper with the original formulas. And when they do, the modifications have also been heavily documented in terms of adding other herbs to a regimen.
Are there certain companies we should be looking out for, if someone were to go out and try to take herbals on their own. You hit the nail on the head when you said that people should be going to licensed herbal practitioners, but is there anything people should be on the lookout for.
A licensed acupuncturist most likely is what you want. This varies from state to state though. But in Texas, all licensed acupuncturists have to have herbal training and have to take the national herbal exam. There are ways of looking that up and seeing which practitioners have taken which exams and can be helpful if you are looking for someone. A practitioner will also tell you if you ask. Most individuals cannot just buy herbal products on their own, from the most well known companies, and have to go to a licensed practitioner to receive.
Well, that’s good to know. The other part of the question was how herbal remedies complement acupuncture and whether they are necessary or not.
Yes, so, you do not have to use herbal formulas with acupuncture and in many cases, we don’t. When we deal with more systemic or deep rooted imbalances, herbal formulas tend to help really wonderfully and complement acupuncture beautifully. They can potentially help the person get better, faster. But when we are dealing with something like a pain-related condition, a person might not ever have to take an herbal formula. Or when we are dealing with our fertility clients who are already taking hormones, we wouldn’t give them herbal formulas because we don’t want to tamper with how the doctor is trying to enhance hormones. You can have very good success with just acupuncture alone in many cases. In terms of safety with other medications, people get very concerned, but herbals are very safe and licensed practitioners should know the ones that might be contraindicated with certain medications. These usually are blood thinners, primarily. And there are very few herbs that will counter act with that. And most of the time, and this is true with any medication, separating them out by a couple of hours, you usually will not get any sort of reaction. Now, keep in mind that it is hard to say how any formula/medication will counteract because your body is a different medium than someone elses.
That is very true.
But in general, herbals are very safe to take with other medications.
Thank you for that. That was very informative. So, lastly, what kinds of practices could an individual do at home that would enhance or improve their acupuncture sessions?
I would recommend anything that would make a person relax, which will be different from person to person. I often suggest Epsom salt baths, some sort of mild exercise practice, this could be yoga, pilates, or meditation- I think is crucial. Breathing exercises, most of us don’t breathe properly and don’t take the time to think about our bodies and how we are responding to our environment. And just getting proper sleep and getting other good health practitioner care from medical practitioners who talk about diet, because diet is your best form of medicine. Even when I think about herbal therapies, I would much rather someone change their diet over taking herbal formulas long term. I think herbal formulas should be temporary, for the most part, even though some of them are extremely safe to take long term. If you are looking for overall, long term changes, diet is going to be the key to that.
Well said. And on that note….Thank you so much. I appreciate the time you have taken to come and talk about this topic. Again, Jennifer Stang, LAc. is an acupuncturist in the Austin, Texas area. You can find more information about Jennifer and her practice at http://bodyevolutionacupuncture.com.
Give her a call, your health depends on it!