February 2008

Acupuncture and Stress Relief

By Elliot Wagner, O.M.D., L.Ac., Doctor of Oriental Medicine

"Acupuncture is not what people think it is!"

This is a comment I often find myself making while speaking with new patients. Most of the time, I am responding to the relief and surprise of patients once they discover that acupuncture is not only helping them to get better, but is actually an enjoyable experience.

For our patients, acupuncture treatments are serious business. They are coming to see a doctor. Gone are the days when people came to an acupuncturist because they "believed in" acupuncture. Today, patients come for acupuncture when they do not get the help they want from their other doctors. They do not choose acupuncture, for the most part, to have a feel-good experience, but to help them to be healthier, to have less anxiety about their physical condition; to have less pain.

What a surprise when they find out that acupuncture is deeply relaxing, as well! This is an aspect of the treatment that predictably catches patients off guard. In the course of treatment they start to relax. They adjust their bodies to get comfortable, their stomach gurgles, their breathing is easier, their thoughts become less urgent, they forget their immediate troubles, they may become sleepy; some even nap.

The cascade of biochemical and neurological events that produces the restorative response in acupuncture includes stimulation of a part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) called the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system (PANS). The autonomic nervous system innervates smooth muscle in glands and skin and specialized cardiac muscle. It controls our body's response to stress or threat. Another part of the ANS, called the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (SANS) is responsible for mediating what is known as the "fight or flight" response, primarily stimulated by the adrenals. With increased threat or stress, real or imagined, muscles become tense, the pupils dilate, blood pressure rises, digestion slows and stops, sphincters contract, the heart beats more rapidly. While it is not the initiator of the stress response, the SANS mediates our body's response to the stress so that it will fight or run, as appropriate. Once the threat has passed, the PANS supports the de-stressing of the body, including relaxation, normal sleep, digestion, and increased intestinal movement. It lowers the blood pressure and relaxes the smooth muscle surrounding blood vessels. This is known as the "rest and digest" response.

Relaxation is a sign of a positive response to acupuncture. While it is not strictly necessary to accomplish the task of, say, relieving the pain of an ankle strain or other recent injury, it is a desirable and helpful sign when the body has to deal with more long-standing problems, such as chronic headaches, migraines, anxiety, low back pain, asthma, or digestive problems. This is so because many of these kinds of problems arise as a result of constant and chronic stress, and will not go away without calming the body's reflexive response to stress.

This response to acupuncture treatment is made use of when a patient purposely chooses acupuncture as a way to resist the daily onslaught of stress, to feel calmer, more in control, and more in touch with their body and feelings. This is accomplished with stress relief, or balancing, treatments. They are completely side effect-free, and while helping the body to relax, can prompt the beginning of a new way of thinking for the patient about what is really causing their symptoms, and preventing them from feeling their best. They are an effective way to calm and re- harmonize the body, mind, and spirit.