What is an acupuncture needle?

Since its introduction to the Western world, acupuncture has been a source of a great deal of controversy, mostly to do with the effectiveness of its techniques in achieving therapeutic ends. Acupuncturists claim to offer a therapy that an remedy conditions as varied as arthritis, back pain, and autism, but to date evidence only exists to support its applications in pain and nausea relief.

Despite this, acupuncture remains widely used in the UK and other European and American countries, with many patients claiming to experience the benefits of the technique. As such, acupuncture offers a valuable alternative to people looking for an alternative or complementary therapy outside the bounds of traditional Western medicine. In this article we look at the acupuncture needle, the tool essential to the practice of acupuncture, and without which acupuncture would not exist as we know it.

Why are needles used in acupuncture?

Needles are the therapeutic tools used to fulfil the point of acupuncture, which is, in the traditional Chinese philosophy, to restore the natural flow of life force to parts of the body suffering from an ailment or disease. This philosophy is based on the belief that life energy, called Qi, readily flows around the body to keep it hale and healthy. According to this philosophy, disease and discomfort is caused by disruptions in the flow of Qi through its vessels, also known as meridians.

The insertion of needles into pre-determined acupuncture points is meant to relieve obstructions and restore healthy Qi flow. This is why needles are such an essential component of the practice, and why they are used by acupuncturist to remedy a range of conditions.

A more modern interpretation of the principles of acupuncture is based on the theory that the insertion of acupuncture needles can effectively stimulate nerves to release natural pain relieving agents in the body. Similarly, the insertion of these needles is also thought to relax tense muscles. Evidence supporting these beliefs remains controversial however, and thus far no link between bodily systems and traditional Chinese maps and diagrams of Qi and its meridians has been determined. To date there is no evidence of the existence of Qi.

On the acupuncture needle

Acupuncture needles are usually made of sterilised, stainless steel, specialty prepared for the purpose of acupuncture. These needles can vary extensively in terms of their thickness and length. Needles typically range between 13mm to significantly longer 130mm options, and can be as little as 0.10 mm or as much as 0.46mm thick.

The use of which needle and where depends on the training and experience of the acupuncturist in question. Acupuncture needles also vary from country to country, for example, Korean practitioners often use copper needles as opposed to stainless steel ones.

How are acupuncture needles used?

Needle insertion is key to both the effectiveness and painlessness of acupuncture. Practitioners often employ a variety of techniques to apply needles, but generally speaking the depth of penetration is relevant to where the needle is being applied and how deeply the target ‘acupuncture point’ is.

Applying the needle quickly through the skin is an effective way of keeping acupuncture painless. We experience pain only through the first few layers of the complex structure which is our skin, and if penetrated quickly, we don’t really experience much more than a quick pinch, if anything at all.

To aid in the application of needles in a painless way, many acupuncturists now buy needles equipped with a guide tube. These are usually simple, clear plastic tubes surrounding the needle. The guide tube is pressed against the skin above the relevant acupuncture point, and by quickly tapping the top of the needle it is pressed into the skin quickly and painlessly. Once the needle has penetrated the skin, the guide tube can be removed and acupuncture performed without any unnecessary discomfort.

Safely using acupuncture needles

Studies have shown that when in the hands of an appropriately trained acupuncturist, the practice itself is quite safe with minimal risks of side effects like some bleeding at the site of needling. Incidences of serious organ damage have been explained as a consequence of poor technique and training.

Because needling is an invasive procedure that involves penetrating the skin, care must be taken to ensure that needles are kept sterile and are either disposed of after use or sterilised appropriately.

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