Dr. Jamie Interviews Dr. Lee on the FAQs of Acupuncture

I love and respect Dr. Carol Lee, my colleague and fellow practitioner here at Oasis Healing Arts, for so many reasons. She is authentic, compassionate, highly educated in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and full of expert insight into acupuncture and herbal medicine. I will often consult Dr. Lee for confirmation on acupuncture point protocols when determining treatment plans for my acupuncture patients. Iron sharpens iron! I recently sat with Dr. Lee to discuss the most common question we receive from our acupuncture patients: “How does acupuncture work?”
Dr. Jamie:
Thanks for sitting down with me to discuss the fundamentals of acupuncture, Dr. Lee. I know our patients will appreciate your answers and insights. So, let’s start with the #1 question: How does acupuncture work?
Dr. Lee:
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts, Dr. Jamie. Acupuncture is based on the meridian system – these are energy channels that flow throughout the body.
Acupuncture works by accessing specific points on the meridian system via the insertion of needles. Depending on the acupuncture point location (there are hundreds throughout the body) and the needling technique and manipulation, we can regulate the flow and circulation of the body to regulate the functions and systems of the body.
Dr. Jamie:
I like that you refer to these channels as a system. It’s a network – it’s interconnected. That’s why we may needle the ankle to treat neck pain, or the hand to treat headaches. Can you elaborate on that.
Dr. Lee:
Absolutely. Because this is a system of channels, it’s not as simple as “just needle where it hurts.” Sometimes a pain condition may indeed require local needling. For example, the neck hurts, needle on the neck. But other times, pain in one area, say the back, could be due to blockage somewhere else along the channel due to stress, lack of sleep, or some internal issue like leaky gut or a hidden infection. In these situations the pain is not resulting from a local injury, but revealing that the body system is out of balance. Pain is an alarm, or as you often say, Dr. Jamie, a red flag waving at you, telling you something’s not right and it needs to be addressed.
In these situations, we wouldn’t just needle local points. We might needle somewhere further up or further down the affected channel, we might needle balance points, we might needle on an associated channel that flows into the affected channel…. We have lots of treatment approaches and options.
Dr. Jamie:
Chinese medicine always sounds so poetic to me. But let’s say we have a patient who is more scientific-minded and can’t really wrap her brain around the concept of energy channels or meridians. How do you explain how acupuncture works to her? I know it seems ironic, but I myself as an acupuncturist and a Functional Medicine Practitioner needed to deeply understand the mechanisms of acupuncture in evidence-based medical terms. And I seek to remove the mysticism and esotericism so often associated with acupuncture when I talk to my patients about it, because that just enshrouds acupuncture in a veil of inauthenticity.
Dr. Lee:
Yes, that’s important. In everyday medical terminology, acupuncture works by decreasing inflammation, increasing local circulation, and downregulating pain signalling to parts of the brain that process pain signals. On an immune level, needling key points stimulates an immune response, triggering mast cell histamine reactions and promoting circulation, thereby reducing inflammation. This is why acupuncture can treat more than just pain.
Dr. Jamie:
I appreciate the website www.evidencebasedacupuncture.org. In it there’s an article called “Signal Transmission” by Bartosz Chmielnicki, MD, in which he provides extensive evidence for the mechanisms by which acupuncture affects the brain and various body systems, primarily the neuroendocrine and central nervous system. He also cites experimental research showing how acupuncture reduces pain via signalling through connective tissues. It’s all very compelling. Clinically, we see acupuncture reduce the pain of headaches, neck and back pain, and all types of neuromuscular pain on a daily basis. But apart from pain, what other conditions do you find acupuncture to be helpful for?
Dr. Lee:
In my opinion, acupuncture is most beneficial for conditions that are sub-clinical. What that means is that you’re having very real symptoms, such as pain or fatigue or digestive issues, but your doctor can not pinpoint your problem with a clear diagnosis. Acupuncture is also effective for chronic issues that are typically and temporarily treated with symptom-relieving over the counter meds such as NSAIDs, antihistamines, steroid creams, etc. Basically, the condition is continually masked, the root cause is never treated, and the pain, which is a continual alarm, gets repeatedly muffled. It’s like pressing snooze on your alarm clock, and never really turning off the alarm or waking up to the real problem that’s causing the pain. Acupuncture and herbal supplement therapy are fantastic treatments for these types of chronic issues.
Dr. Jamie:
Another common question our patients ask is: “How many treatments will it take for me to feel better?” What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Lee:
My answer to that question is that it truly depends on 1) how chronic the condition is and 2) if there are any other concurrent chronic illnesses or lifestyle habits that are inflammatory in nature, such as a hidden / unknown infection, diabetes, a diet high in sugar and processed carbs and trans fats, poor sleep habits, chronic stress (which is inflammatory) and long-term lifestyle habits that contribute to an inflammatory state. If the patient has multiple inflammatory processes going on, It’ll be an uphill battle because while acupuncture therapy done once or twice a week will help to rebalance and restore, an unhealthy, inflammatory lifestyle lived out 24 hours a day, 7 days a week has a greater and negative impact on overall health.
For example, simple neck pain from sleeping on an unsupportive pillow or on an unfamiliar hotel bed while on vacation is quickly and effectively treated with acupuncture. But what might make a simple neck pain condition take longer to respond to acupuncture therapy is if you also eat poorly, never exercise, have poor blood sugar control, have high levels of stress and no positive outlets, don’t get enough sleep, etc. What it boils down to is that the further your body is away from its NATURAL, balanced, homeostatic point, the longer it will take to get rebalanced. So we want to help our patients align their lifestyle with the treatment goals. If we want to reduce the inflammation of pain, we need to also reduce the inflammation coming from anywhere else.
Dr. Jamie:
Exactly. Even with natural therapies like acupuncture and herbal supplement programs, the personal work of lifestyle improvements is always required in order to achieve optimal healing. Acupuncture helps. Massage and bodywork help. Functional medicine testing and supplement therapy programs help. But the absolute best medicine is always nutrient-dense whole FOODS, faith-filled, positive PERSPECTIVE on life’s challenges, adequate SLEEP, and regular EXERCISE. We are here to treat and administer therapies, but we are also here to guide, teach, and coach our patients so that they reclaim power over their own bodies and their own health, and in that empowerment, make right choices and right changes so that they feel great and look great and live great, all the days of their long, healthy, happy lives.
Dr. Lee:
Yes, that’s the hope and the goal.
Dr. Jamie:
Thank you for your time, Dr. Lee. We hope our readers enjoyed this interview. Be blessed and be well!

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