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Acupuncture: Ancient Chinese Healing Art Finds New Role In Modern Medicine

February 6, 2017

For many people, getting a shot with a needle can be a cringe-worthy moment.

But, when it comes to acupuncture therapy, Dr. Tuanzhu Ha says not to worry.

“Most people are scared of needles because our first — and usually only — experience with needles is with a thick hypodermic needle, which can cause pain,” Ha said. “Acupuncture needles, however, are extremely thin … as thin as hair.”

The Johnson City-based acupuncture specialist was the guest speaker Wednesday at a health talk sponsored by Takoma Regional Hospital’s breast cancer support group.

During her talk, Ha explained that acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing therapy that involves the insertion and manipulation of very fine, sterile needles into specific areas of the body. The tiny, disposable needles are about the size of a human hair.

“They are inserted quickly and shallowly,” she said. “Patients may feel a slight sensation upon entry and then pressure or a dull or surging reaction when the needle gets a little deeper (in the skin).”

During therapy, about 2-10 acupuncture needles are typically used, depending on the patient’s symptoms. They are left in place for about 30 minutes, Ha said.

These insertions, she believes, affects the flow of energy (known to the Chinese as Chi) to help boost the body’s immune system and help combat certain diseases and disorders and to relieve pain.

Acupuncture treatment, the physician noted, may also include many non-needle techniques, such as electroacupuncture, acupressure, herbal medicines, moxibustion (heat application), massage and cupping (vacuum application). Certain exercises, such as Tai Chi and Chigong, can also be useful therapies.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The practice of acupuncture is derived from the oriental belief that energy is “responsible for well being,” Ha explained.

In the body, this energy travels along 14 pathways (or meridian lines), which are connected to specific organs and bodily functions, according to this belief.

“When the energy flow is blocked or thrown off balance, illness results,” Ha said.

By stimulating points along these pathways, acupuncture removes the energy block and restores the balance and flow of energy along the pathways and boost the body’s immune system, she said in explaining the belief.

Some research has indicated that acupuncture may prompt the nerve system to naturally release pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.

These chemicals, Ha explained, mimic the effects of morphine, “by attaching to opiate receptor sites found throughout the nerve system.”

Basically, the endorphins block the pain receptors to the brain — resulting in relaxation and relief from pain. This is done without the use of potentially harmful and addictive pain-relieving medications.

Ha is a medical doctor who was trained in both western and traditional Chinese medicine at Nanjing Medical University, in her home country of China. Today, she works to combine both methods to heal her patients.

Ha is certified as an acupuncturist by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. In addition to her private practice in Johnson City, she is also a medical researcher at East Tennessee State University.

One of Ha’s patients is Sam Thomas, who is a Takoma Hospital pharmacist. Thomas attended her health talk on Wednesday.

Following the program, Thomas noted that he has not only received health benefits of acupuncture therapy, but he also “enjoys the overall experience” due to the relaxing atmosphere that the therapy process provides.

Thomas, who was diagnosed with melanoma, a form of skin cancer, said he has been receiving acupuncture therapy from Ha for nearly three years to treat upper limb lymphedema, which was a complication of his cancer treatment.

Lymphedema can occur following the removal of lymph nodes. Normally, lymph nodes help filter and remove fluid from the body. But when they are removed, the fluid can collect in the affected limb and result in painful swelling. Many breast cancer patients suffer from lymphedema.

In addition to relieving the swelling and pain of lymphedema, Thomas said his acupuncture treatments have also relieved the pain of arthritis in his knee. It has also, he said, boosted his immune system.

In the two and a half years that he has been undergoing acupuncture therapy, Thomas said he has not been sick with a cold.

Some have reported success using the Chinese healing art with a variety of other disorders, including anxiety and depression, allergic rhinitis and chronic pain disorders, such as fibromyalgia and diabetic nerve pain, Ha noted.

Acupuncture is also being investigated along with immunotherapy to aid in the treatment of certain forms of cancer, she added.

The National Institutes of Health says on its website that “results from a number of studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic such as low-back pain, neck pain and osteoarthritis/knee pain.

“It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches. Therefore, acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider. However, clinical practice guidelines are inconsistent in recommendations about acupuncture.”

The NIH site went on to say that how acupuncture actually works on the brain and body is still being investigated by researchers.

“Current evidence suggests that many factors — like expectation and belief — that are unrelated to acupuncture needling may play important roles in the the beneficial effects of acupuncture on pain,” the site says.

The NIH also noted that acupuncture is “generally considered safe when performed by an experienced, well-trained practitioner using sterile needles.

“Improperly performed acupuncture can cause serious side effects,” the NIH added.