Getting to the point of medical acupuncture: Answers to common questions

Kendra Unger, MD, a medical acupuncturist and family medicine physician, explains the procedure, what to expect, and how it can help ease your pain.

What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves the placement of tiny metal needles through the skin in specific places on the body to provide pain relief and other health benefits. The needles stimulate areas of the nervous system to achieve the desired effects. Acupuncture has been used for centuries to help ease pain and to promote well-being.

Dr. Kendra Unger performs medical acupuncture.

What is medical acupuncture?
Medical acupuncture is acupuncture performed by a licensed physician.

What conditions can be treated with acupuncture?
Many conditions, including lower back pain, knee and hip pain, headaches, neck pain, arthritis, and muscle pain, can be effectively treated with acupuncture. Acupuncture can also be helpful in treating a depressed mood and anxiety.

What can I expect during a treatment?
First, your acupuncture provider will give you an exam and ask questions about your overall health. If it’s determined that acupuncture would be beneficial for you, treatments can range anywhere from 15-45 minutes, depending on the medical condition. The number of needles used and the amount of time they are left in place depends on the medical condition being treated.

Acupuncture needles are very different from the needles used to draw blood. They’re extremely thin, so you should expect little to no pain with the insertion of a needle. Some patients experience a slight skin prick at the time of insertion; others don’t feel a thing. Once the needle is in place, you will occasionally be aware that a needle is present; however, this should not be painful. The needles are extremely flexible, and you are able to move freely, if necessary. Occasionally, the needles are stimulated with a mild electrical current that feels like a gentle tapping or buzzing sensation. These treatments are designed to promote relaxation and a sense of well-being.

What are the benefits?
Acupuncture helps stimulate the body’s various systems to reduce pain and improve physical and emotional wellbeing. Acupuncture can improve sleep, digestive function, and boost your mood.

What are the risks?
The risks of acupuncture are minimal. Most patients do not experience any bleeding from this procedure although this does occasionally happen in very tiny amounts. Because the needle is entering the skin, infection of the skin is a possibility. Redness or swelling in the area of the needle is also occasionally seen, but is only temporary. There are other rare risks that can be discussed with your physician at the time of treatment.

Does insurance cover acupuncture?
It varies based on insurance coverage.

How many treatments will I need?
While some patients’ symptoms improve with just one treatment, the number of treatments needed is different for each person. Most chronic conditions that have been causing symptoms for a long period of time do require more treatments to improve symptoms. Most patients notice improvement by the third treatment. Six treatments are typically recommended to achieve the maximum benefit. Once the symptoms have improved, the treatment schedule can be decreased.

What is considered a successful treatment?
There are several ways to evaluate the success of a treatment series. A 50 percent reduction in pain is typically expected, and you may see improvement in your ability to walk and exercise more comfortably.

You may also be able to reduce or eliminate the use of medications for symptoms after successful acupuncture treatment. If little to no improvement in symptoms is seen, you and your physician may consider other options.

Does acupuncture interfere with other treatments?
Acupuncture can provide a boost to your traditional treatment plan. Some patients undergoing chemotherapy also use acupuncture to help ease chemotherapy side effects. It may also be paired with therapies for the treatment of allergies, asthma, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, infertility, and more. It can often help with physical therapy and chiropractic work too.
 

 

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