Acupuncture

Description

Unfortunately, there is precious little research done on the potential benefits of acupuncture for autoimmune diseases in general, or alopecia areata specifically. Acupuncture is often cited as an alternative treatment for alopecia. But we suspect that that is due to acupuncture simply being a relatively popular form of alternative therapy. There is some anecdotal evidence that acupuncture may have benefits, but until scientific studies are seriously undertaken, that is where the situation will remain. The following is for informational purposes only, and anyone interested in pursuing this particular treatment for alopecia, or for anything else, would do well to speak to a doctor that they respect.

What is acupuncture?

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (A division of the National Institutes of Health ) defines acupunture this way:

  • Acupuncture is one of the oldest, most commonly used medical procedures in the world. Originating in China more than 2,000 years ago, acupuncture began to become better known in the United States in 1971, when New York Times reporter James Reston wrote about how doctors in China used needles to ease his pain after surgery.
  • The term acupuncture describes a family of procedures involving stimulation of anatomical points on the body by a variety of techniques. American practices of acupuncture incorporate medical traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries. The acupuncture technique that has been most studied scientifically involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation. (Read more from the NCCAM’s overview of acupuncture here)

The British Acupuncture Council has this to say:

  • Acupuncture is a system of healing which has been practised in China and other Eastern countries for thousands of years. Although often described as a means of pain relief, it is in fact used to treat people with a wide range of illnesses.
  • Its focus is on improving the overall well being of the patient, rather than the isolated treatment of specific symptoms.
  • According to traditional Chinese philosophy, our health is dependent on the body’s motivating energy – known as Qi – moving in a smooth and balanced way through a series of meridians (channels) beneath the skin.
  • Qi consists of equal and opposite qualities – Yin and Yang – and when these become unbalanced, illness may result. By inserting fine needles into the channels of energy, an acupuncturist can stimulate the body’s own healing response and help restore its natural balance.
  • The flow of Qi can be disturbed by a number of factors. These include emotional states such as anxiety, stress, anger, fear or grief, poor nutrition, weather conditions, hereditary factors, infections, poisons and trauma.
  • The principal aim of acupuncture in treating the whole person is to recover the equilibrium between the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of the individual.

How does acupuncture work?

No less an institution than The Mayo Clinic addresses the question of how acupuncture works like this:

The traditional Chinese theory behind acupuncture as medical treatment is very different from that of Western medicine. In traditional Chinese medicine, imbalances in the basic energetic flow of life — known as qi or chi (chee) — are thought to cause illness. Qi is believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. These meridians and the energy flow are accessible through approximately 400 different acupuncture points. By inserting extremely fine needles into these points in various combinations, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will rebalance. This will allow your body’s natural healing mechanisms to take over.

In contrast, the Western explanation of acupuncture incorporates modern concepts of neuroscience. According to the National Institutes of Health, researchers are studying at least three possible explanations for how acupuncture works:

  • Opioid release. During acupuncture, endorphins that are part of your body’s natural pain-control system may be released into your central nervous system — your brain and spinal cord. This reduces pain much like taking a pain medication.
  • Spinal cord stimulation. Acupuncture may stimulate the nerves in your spinal cord to release pain-suppressing neurotransmitters. This has sometimes been called the “gate theory.”
  • Blood flow changes. Acupuncture needles may increase the amount of blood flow in the area around the needle. The increased blood flow may supply additional nutrients or remove toxic substances, or both, promoting healing.

Read more of the Mayo Clinic’s article on acupuncture by clicking here.

Common Types of Acupuncture

Psychology Today Magazine define the most common varieties of acupuncture practiced today in this way:

Traditional Chinese Acupuncture
Needles are used to activate specific points of the body that affect the flow of chi. When acupuncture was first developed, ivory and bone needles were used. As technology advanced, iron, silver and gold needles were developed. Today, practitioners of traditional Chinese acupuncture use stainless-steel needles about the width of one strand of hair.

Japanese Acupuncture
A slightly gentler method, Japanese acupuncture uses thinner and shorter needles than the Chinese style. There are two treatments: root and local. Root treatment addresses a patient’s energy imbalance as a whole, while local treatment focuses on alleviating specific symptoms. Both root and local treatments can be performed at the same time.

Five-Element Acupuncture
The concept of yin and yang is also associated with the Chinese philosophy of the five elements: fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Nature and humans are linked in a cyclical pattern of creation and destruction symbolized by these elements. This belief colors Chinese history, philosophy and medicine. Five-element acupuncturists take a holistic approach to medicine, focusing on the chi and the balance of the five elements in the body. They believe that restoring the balance of elements will cause other symptoms to cure themselves.

Auricular Acupuncture
This method is performed solely on the 200 acupuncture points around the outer ear. Because acupuncture points are connected by energy pathways, each point around the ear is linked to other points around the body. It is thought that auricular acupuncture can have all the benefits of traditional acupuncture because stimulating points around the ear affects specific pathways, which in turn stimulate the body’s flow of chi.

Korean Hand Acupuncture-Acupressure
Similar to auricular acupuncture, Korean hand acupuncture utilizes what Tae-Woo Yoo, a Korean physician, calls micro-meridians, which link to traditional meridians that flow throughout the body. Tae-Woo Yoo developed this form of acupuncture in 1971, mapping the micro-meridians of the hand and linking them to corresponding pathways. Treatment is isolated to the hand, but, as with auricular acupuncture, the overall effects are thought to be identical to traditional acupuncture performed on the body.

Trigger Point Acupuncture
A direct style of acupuncture, specific trigger points are used to relieve muscular tightness caused by injuries or bad posture, for example. Tight muscles are identified and a thin needle is used to probe the area, causing the muscles to twitch involuntarily, relieving tightness and, usually, symptoms.

Read more from Psychology Today here.

How to find an acupuncturist near you?

For those living in the USA:

American Academy of Medical Acupuncture

National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

Psychology Today’s Complementary Health Practitioner Listing

For those living in Canada:

Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada

For those living in the UK:

British Acupuncture Council

For those living in Australia:

The Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association

For those living in South Africa:

Acupuncture Association of the South African Society of Physiotherapy

For those living in New Zealand:

New Zealand Register Of Acupuncturists

Review

There are, of course, differing views on exactly how effective acupuncture is as a treatment for alopecia areata. If you have experience with this therapy, whether positive or negative, please take a moment to share your review with those who are considering it for themselves or their family member.

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