Taking Root

With an Expanding Understanding of Wellness, Western Medicine Looks East

Acupuncture is gaining mainstream acceptance in the medical community. Belinda Anderson, director of Monmouth University’s Institute for Health and Wellness and a practicing acupuncturist, explains how this therapy is being used to help everyone from couples trying to get pregnant to individuals suffering from chronic pain—and why it’s so effective.

What is acupuncture as a practice?

Acupuncture is one of the modalities that belongs to the practice of Chinese medicine.[1] The most common modality people know about is acupuncture, but there are several other techniques that acupuncturists use on a regular basis when they’re treating patients. Another common one is cupping—think of Michael Phelps in the Olympics. There are other things like moxibustion, a warming technique; Chinese herbal medicine; tui na, which is Chinese medical massage. There’s a common misconception[2] that if you go for a treatment, you’re only going to get acupuncture. It’s very unusual that someone will only get acupuncture.

How is Chinese medicine different from conventional medicine?

In conventional medicine we say that bacteria or a virus caused a cold or pneumonia or something to occur in the body. But in Chinese medicine, we see it more as a dynamic interplay between the outside and the inside. We’re surrounded by bacteria and viruses all of the time but we don’t always get sick. Part of it is because sometimes the body is in a weakened state and sometimes it’s very strong and able to fight that off. In the Chinese medicine model, we think of our body as a garden, and our body, like a garden, is significantly impacted by the environment. So, you can think about a person like this too. What sort of person is this?[3] What are the weaknesses that will develop easily when this person is put under unfavorable conditions?[4] It becomes a default pathway that an individual’s body will go into when the body is put under stress.[5]

What are some of the most common reasons a patient seeks out an acupuncturist?

Pain—any type of musculoskeletal pain. It can be arthritis, neck pain, back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain. Pain[6] is definitely the most common reason. And headaches are very common. Often a patient will come in with migraine headaches and say they’re worse when under stress. Mental health is another—people with anxiety and depression, stress. Mental health disorders are really on the increase.

So acupuncture is effective for treating both physical and mental symptoms?

In Chinese medicine it’s impossible to separate the mind and the body. So it doesn’t matter if somebody comes in and only ever talks about their physical symptoms. You, as the clinician, know that there is a whole psycho-emotional dynamic, and you treat them according to their physical symptoms, which will automatically treat their psycho-emotional symptoms. And it’s the same in reverse. In fact, the most common diagnosis for depression in Chinese medicine also often has a physical component—a classic example is back pain. A person comes in, they’ve got this back pain, and it’s been really bad in the last month, and you start talking to them and they’re describing to you that they’ve got this job, it’s been really stressful, they’re having a really hard time with their boss, and so you know that this is a mind-body thing.

Why does acupuncture work?

It’s what we call a complex intervention. Because there’s the practitioner-patient relationship, there’s the relaxation on the table, there’s the needles,[7] there are other things that the acupuncturist does, there’s the patient’s belief system about what’s going to happen, and so there are many different components. It’s not just the treatment—you’re also giving a lot of lifestyle advice. The patient is seeing their practitioner regularly, so there’s an element of coaching where you’re checking in with the person every week and discussing why and how they are trying to improve their health. You’re helping make modifications to their lifestyle habits. When someone changes their diet and exercise program, and starts thinking of what the sources of stress are, this can be very powerful over an extended period of time.

Why is a change in lifestyle so important to healing?

It takes time to recover. We’ve been lulled into this sense that when you’re sick, you go to somebody who tells you what’s wrong with you and then they come up with a solution, which usually involves taking a pill. Then we expect a very immediate response, even though we don’t necessarily change any of the things that caused the problem in the first place. So you can see how that whole approach is a bit illogical. In fact, it makes a lot more sense to think of our body as a garden or as a natural ecosystem, and when we’re doing things that are constantly disruptive, you can’t just fix it by adding something else to the system, or having surgery and chopping something out. Because you need to change the things that are causing the problem in the first place. You might be able to take away the symptoms temporarily but the disturbed systems will continue to be disturbed.

Given that pain is the most common complaint among patients—why should they choose a non-pharmacological[8] approach over, say, medication?

Opioid medications are not very effective for chronic pain. For acute pain: yes. It relates to the fact that chronic pain has a complex psycho-emotional-physical dynamic, so it’s not like you can treat it with just the chemical approach. If these psycho-emotional components are the dominant ones, then medication is not really going to help. And of course, one can develop a tolerance to these medications, so if you’re taking them over an extended period of time, it’s another reason why they might become less effective.

You have extensive experience in utilizing acupuncture for women’s health issues. Why is it so effective for women?

Chinese medicine has been used for gynecological conditions for thousands of years, and we know for women, Chinese medicine can be really effective for anything from painful periods, unusual bleeding, and ovarian cysts, to struggling to get pregnant. In terms of regulating entire physiological systems, like the reproductive system, we don’t yet know the exact molecular mechanisms.… But there are animal studies that have shown acupuncture can regulate the hypothalamus-pituitary system in the brain, and once you start regulating the hypothalamus and pituitary, then you’re also regulating the endocrine system.

Is acupuncture becoming more accepted by the mainstream medical community?

If we look at current trends, yes, there are a lot more referrals by conventional healthcare practitioners, and we’re seeing acupuncture being brought into mainstream medical facilities, hospitals, and other clinics. There’s a growing body of research evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness, and we’re steadily seeing an in-crease in insurance coverage. One of the best research facilities, arguably, in this country—Harvard Medical School—is doing very sophisticated research looking at acupuncture’s ability to modulate brain function. The other big driver is that a lot of the conditions people struggle with are more chronic, lifestyle-based conditions, and often conventional medicine hasn’t got a lot to offer, and so that’s where the complementary therapies [like acupuncture] can be really effective.

Who should see an acupuncturist[9] and when should they go?

Chinese medicine is fundamentally preventative—so anybody can go to an acupuncturist, even if they don’t have an ailment, because it’s all about maintaining wellness. That’s the fundamental philosophy. 

To the Point

  1. Traditional Chinese medicine originated in China thousands of years ago. It spread to other countries in Asia and the West, gaining popularity in the U.S. in the 1970s.
  2. Another misconception is that acupuncture only treats pain, but Anderson says “it treats any condition that a patient walks in with, from digestive disorders to gynecological problems.”
  3. Anderson says people have different “constitutions” or physical makeups, and so weaknesses show up differently in each individual.
  4. “Unfavorable conditions” creating stress in the body can be caused by myriad things, both physical and mental—from the food we eat, to exercising too much or too little, to the loss of a loved one.
  5. Anderson says stress can show up in physical symptoms ranging from headaches to cramps to joint pain.
  6. According to Anderson, 50 percent of patients who go to an acupuncturist go for pain, and the majority of those are going in for back pain.
  7. BA: “Acupuncturists manipulate needles by twirling, lifting, and thrusting them. When you do that, these fibers that are in the underlying fascia (connective tissue) matrix wrap around the needle, placing stress and strain forces on those fibers. The cell is registering that, and that mechanical force stimulus goes right into the nucleus and regulates gene expression.”
  8. The American College of Physicians recently declared that non-pharmacological intervention—management of pain without medication—should be the first line of therapy for both chronic and acute back pain.
  9. Anderson says when choosing an acupuncturist, patients should make sure they have a state license and are certified with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.