What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
TCM’s medical theories and concepts (e.g. “yin,” “yang,” “Qi,” etc) are very different from Western/allopathic biomedical language, but efforts around the world are ongoing to bridge the two systems to achieve the best results for patients.
What is acupuncture?
Does acupuncture hurt? What will it feel like?
Acupuncture is usually nearly painless. Most people expect the pain to be similar to getting a flu shot, or having blood drawn. They are pleasantly surprised to find it’s not anything like this, however, as the needles are much thinner than hypodermic needles (the ones used to draw blood). In fact, acupuncture needles are thinner than a human hair, and 40 of them would fit inside a hypodermic needle! You may feel a very slight sensation (dullness, soreness, tingling, etc.) when the needle is inserted, but if it does happen, it usually fades within seconds (like a mosquito bite, but without the itching afterward!).
The needles are usually left in for ~20-30 minutes, during which you generally feel no pain (but may feel an interesting sensation of energy moving, if you’re sensitive to it). It’s often relaxing, and some patients fall asleep on the table. At the end of the session, many report feeling much more relaxed and calmer, with less pain and tension.
Is it safe? Are there side effects to acupuncture?
Acupuncture is safe when performed by a well-trained practitioner. Most people experience no or few adverse effects. These may include minor bleeding, local soreness or bruising, feeling faint or lightheaded (to reduce this, patients are advised to eat 1-2 hours prior to acupuncture), brief nausea or dizziness especially on standing, drowsiness (caution when driving), emotional releases, and a temporary exacerbation or change of symptoms for 1-2 days.
To minimize risk of infection, acupuncturists are required to use only sterile, pre-packaged, disposable needles. Needles are never cleaned and reused, and I practice the Clean Needle Technique protocol used in the United Status.
There have been a few cases reported of pneumothorax (lung puncture) by acupuncture. This is extremely rare and easily avoided by a well-trained acupuncturist, who knows the proper depth, angle and location of points near vulnerable areas of the body.
Generally, acupuncture is safe and can usually be done in conjunction with other therapies and prescription pharmaceuticals, without significant side effects.
For cancer patients, we follow the best international standards of safety in oncology acupuncture. We avoid needling close to active tumour sites and use only shallow or non-needle methods when white blood cell or platelet counts fall below the recommended threshold. To maintain safety while maximizing effectiveness, we flexibly use special techniques as needed (e.g. distal acupuncture, microsystem acupuncture, or needle-less methods such as seeds, acupressure, magnets, etc.
For herbal prescriptions, we use the latest available scientific evidence to make sure our herbal and dietary recommendations do not interact negatively with your other medications, including chemotherapy drugs. Feel free to ask us more about our approach, as we take safety very seriously!
Is acupuncture safe during pregnancy?
Around the world, acupuncture is often preferred during pregnancy, as it offers drug-free relief for morning sickness, heartburn, pain (e.g. back, leg, hip pain, etc.), constipation, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety and depression, vaginal discharge and itching, itchy skin, sinusitis, hypertension, edema, and breech or posterior babies. See your practitioner early in the pregnancy to assess in what areas you may need more support.
From 35 weeks onward, acupuncture can be used regularly to prepare the body for a smoother labour process, using points that relax the ligaments, soften the cervix, promote proper positioning of the baby, reduce tension, and increase the mother’s overall well-being. Certain points can be needled or pressed during labour (including by an instructed birth partner) to reduce labour pain. These points are routinely used by midwives in Europe and elsewhere, and (much more rarely) taught in some pre-natal classes here.
After birth, acupuncture, moxibustion and Chinese herbs are traditionally used to restore the birth parent’s state of energy for a faster recovery, healthy breastfeeding, and avoidance of post-partum conditions such as depression.
For more information on acupuncture in pregnancy, speak to your practitioner or see this website.
How will I feel after my treatment?
Occasionally, symptoms may temporarily increase for a day or two before improving. This is known as a “healing reaction” and occurs when a problem is “on its way out.” Anyone who has done a nutritional cleanse may be familiar with this principle. It is not uncommon, but does not usually happen.
Finally, some people occasionally experience an ’emotional release’ during or after treatment, such as crying, and often feel lighter and calmer after the release.
How long will it take to get better? How often will I have to come back and for how long?
The length of treatment needed depends on a number of factors including:
- what your goals are
- how long you’ve experienced a particular problem (generally, more chronic the problem, the longer it will take to heal)
- what your body’s strengths and weakness are
- how able and interested you are to work from different angles (e.g. emotions, food, habits, exercise, etc.)
- how frequently you can come in for treatment
If you would like relief from something specific, a series of 6 acupuncture treatments spaced close together (ideally 1-3 times per week, depending) is a typical first step to see how you respond and if you feel better within those 6. I find that patients who are able to come in more than once a week definitely experience more rapid improvement (as the treatments build on each other), so they get a bigger “bang for their buck” in the end.
Some people will feel much better after one or two treatments, whereas others will find that improvement is more gradual. For very chronic (decades-long) health issues, it may take several months of dedicated treatment to get to the level you are aiming for. (For example, I myself had weekly acupuncture and herbal medicine for around 6 months until my very severe insomnia and depression was at a more manageable state.)
If your goals are more wellness-oriented or preventative, you may not need to come as often. We can discuss your treatment plan and expectations during your first consultation.
What kind of training do acupuncturists have? How can I choose a safe acupuncturist?
Some other health professionals in Ontario (e.g. medical doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, registered massage therapists, chiropractors, naturopaths, etc.) are permitted to perform acupuncture within the scope of their own practice. A few of these professionals choose to undertake the entire (min 2000 hour) TCM training program. Otherwise, they are usually required to study at least 200 hours before being allowed to practice acupuncture. They are regulated by their own professional Colleges, and not by the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario (CTCMPAO).
How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture works by stimulating the body’s own natural healing abilities (i.e. instead of injecting something “new” into the body, removing something surgically, over replacing the body’s natural function with an artificial intervention). For example, your body already produces many chemicals and hormones to heal from injury, fight off viruses, or maintain the proper internal temperature despite weather changes. Many drugs are actually copies of the body’s own chemicals.
However, just as we aren’t always accessing our full capacity of (for example) brain power, we aren’t always accessing our full capacity of self-healing resources within the body. When the body’s ability to regulate itself seems compromised, acupuncture can boost this enough to give the body an “edge” over whatever imbalance or illness we’re experiencing.
In Chinese medicine theory, health results from the proper balance and circulation of ‘energy’ in the body (as how Western medicine may view blood circulation or nerve conduction). Acupuncture helps unblock the stagnant energy associated with pain, poor functioning, and chronic disease. As such it improves the body’s ability to repair damage, regenerate, heal and flourish.
Will my health benefits plan cover this?
Acupuncture is not currently covered by OHIP. Many insurance plans do cover acupuncture, and the vast majority now require registration with the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncturists of Ontario (CTCMPAO). This is the only College that allows its registrants to perform TCM diagnosis and TCM acupuncture (acupuncture done by other licensed professionals is not using the TCM approach). The occasional health benefit plan is out of date and does not cover acupuncture under the CTCMPAO license. Please check with your benefits company.
What health issues can acupuncture help me with?
For cancer patients, research shows the greatest benefits in using acupuncture for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, peripheral neuropathy (numbness, tingling and pain), aromatase inhibitor-induced arthralgias (pain from using letrozole or other hormone-blocking drugs), as well as promoting sleep, reducing anxiety, and improving appetite and digestion.
For general practice acupuncture, the following information has been taken from this informative website.
As a natural form of healing, acupuncture has the following benefits:
- provides drug-free pain relief
- effectively treats a wide range of acute and chronic ailments
- treats the underlying cause of disease and illness as well as the symptoms
- provides an wholistic approach to the treatment of disease and illness, linking body, mind and emotions
- assists in the prevention against disease and illness as well as the maintenance of general well-being
Acupuncture is known to treat a wide range of disorders including:
- Neurological conditions such as headaches, migraines, difficulty sleeping, nervous tension, stroke, some forms of deafness, facial and inter-costal neuralgia, trigeminal neuralgia, some forms of paralysis, sequelae of poliomyelitis, peripheral neuropathy, noises in the ears, dizziness, and Meniere’s disease.
- Cardiovascular disorders such as high or low blood pressure, fluid retention, chest pain, angina pectoris, poor circulation, cold hands and feet, and muscle cramps.
- Respiratory conditions such as bronchial asthma, acute and chronic bronchitis, acute tonsillitis, rhinitis, sinusitis, hay fever, chronic cough, laryngitis, sore throat, influenza and the common cold.
- Digestive system disorders such as toothache, post-extraction pain, gingivitis, mouth ulcers, hiccough, spasms of the oesophagus, gastric and duodenal ulcers, gastric hyperacidity, gastritis, heartburn, hiatus hernia syndrome, flatulence, paralytic ileus, colitis, diarrhoea, constipation, haemorrhoids, liver and gall bladder disorders, and weight control.
- Urogenital disorders such as cystitis, prostatitis, orchitis, low sexual vitality, urinary retention, kidney disorders, nocturnal enuresis, and neurogenic bladder dysfunction.
- Gynaecological and obstetric disorders such as premenstrual tension, painful, heavy or irregular, or the absence of periods, abnormal uterine bleeding or discharge, hormonal disturbances, disorders associated with menopause, prolapse of the uterus or bladder, difficulty with conception, and morning sickness.
- Skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, nerve rash, herpes zoster, acne, scar tissue and resultant adhesions, hair loss and dandruff.
- Eye conditions such as visual disorders, red, sore, itchy or watery eyes, conjunctivitis, simple cataracts, myopia in children, and central retinitis.
- Musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis, sciatica, weak back, low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, tenosynovitis, shoulder and neck pain, cervicobrachial syndrome, ‘frozen shoulder’, and ‘tennis elbow‘.
- Sporting injuries such as sprained ankles and knees, cartilage problems, corking and tearing of muscles, torn ligaments and bruises.
- Psychological conditions such as depression, phobias, emotional disturbances, anxiety, nervousness and addictions such as smoking.
* The disorders above which appear in bold have been recognised by the World Health Organisation (December 1979) as having been successfully treated by acupuncture. The disorders which do not appear in bold above are other common disorders which have been found to respond well to acupuncture.
If I don’t have any major problems, can treatments still help me?
For example, regulating your menstrual cycle now (by addressing pain, PMS, clots, regularity, and length/type of flow) can help reduce the probability of later issues such as fibroids, infertility, fatigue and depression. Improving your digestion now can help reduce the chances of developing not just digestive tract issues (IBS, colitis, Crohn’s, diverticulitis, etc.), but also a wide range of seemingly unrelated issues from arthritis to cysts, fibromyalgia to even cancers.
What are some other therapies used by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?
How can TCM’s nutritional approach help me?
What should I consider in choosing an acupuncturist?
In Ontario, a wide variety of health professionals are currently allowed to provide acupuncture. Those with limited training in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are only allowed to give acupuncture within their own scope of practice, e.g. many providers such as massage therapists and physiotherapists are supposed to provide acupuncture as an adjunct in the scope of the conditions they treat (usually pain or musculoskeletal conditions), but not use it for internal medicine, gynecological or other conditions. Those with more extensive education, training and experience in Traditional Chinese Medicine acupuncture are be registered with the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario (CTCMPAO), however even within the College there is a great range in the amount of training a practitioner may have. Don’t hesitate to ask about the extent of your acupuncturist’s training, or their experience working with patients such as yourself (i.e. your particular health needs, but also other needs you may have in feeling heard and cared for).
If you’re particularly interested in exploring nutritional, herbal, or exercise advice, you can ask if that’s something they typically include in their practice. Ultimately, look for someone who will listen to and work with you respectfully in your healing journey.