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  • Dr. Donald Littlewood

What Everyone Ought to Know about Acupuncture

Updated: Jul 13, 2019

In order to really talk acupuncture, we need to go back to ancient China, and discuss a little bit about the origins of the technique.

Traditionally, acupuncture has been thought to work on the concept of Qi. Qi is difficult to define in English, but it is essentially the concept that interconnects the living and inanimate objects.

A balance of Qi is required for physical and mental health, and a blockage of Qi can manifest itself in disease. Qi flows along pathways in the body called meridians. It is these meridians that guide acupuncture providers where to put the needles.

The basic premise of acupuncture is simple: stimulation at one site on the body has an effect on another, more distant site.


So we can’t really talk about acupuncture without talking about a little bit of physiology. I’ll keep it as simple as I can!

Pain has many different components: neurologic, immunologic, hormonal & psychological. We have these nerve endings called nociceptors, which are small sensory fibres that respond to various stimuli:

  • C-fibres that carry the dull pain sensation and require more stimuli to activate.

  • A(delta) fibres that are low-threshold pain receptors that give us sharp sensations.

Acupuncture involves penetrating a needle down into the muscle and connective tissues to cause these fibres to elicit the Qi sensation.

Muscles also have a unique type of neuron called a wide dynamic range neuron that converge a bunch of sensory information from all different sources. We’re talking skin, organs, muscle, connective tissue, joints, etc. Researchers are saying this part of the reason why acupuncture can have such a profound effect on the internal organs.

Acupuncture is often talked about in a chronic pain setting. Chronic pain can be incredibly difficult to treat, because of the vast changes in your body when it occurs.

Chronic pain is known to have a long-term adaptive change in the way the neurons react to a stimulus. The good news: acupuncture has been thought to have a role in reversing some of these adaptive, neuroplastic changes.

What is acupuncture used for?

Traditionally, acupuncture can be used for pretty much anything. And a lot of TCM practitioners still practice that way. I however take a neurofunctional approach to my acupuncture.

This means that I look for changes in how the joints move, how the muscles interact and movement patterns that exist that should be changed. Now that being said, I still use some traditional acupuncture points for their original purpose.

Spine-related disorders

Back pain is one of the most frequently studied conditions around. Not just in the chiropractic and rehabilitation world, but in the acupuncture world as well.

Multiple studies are showing that when put up next to a control, a therapy similar to acupuncture, or massage, that acupuncture takes the cake. Acupuncture will be especially helpful if this back pain has been one of those 5+ year chronic issues.

Myofasical pain syndrome

Trigger points are a really well studied phenomenon (stay tuned for this more in depth in the next blog). They are essentially hyperirritable points in a band of tight, sore muscle that cause local and referred pain.

Dry needling is the practice of putting acupuncture needles directly into the trigger points. I often use the traditional acupuncture points, but I always needle directly into a trigger point or two.

Yes, it hurts initially.

Yes, you will feel that deep Qi sensation.

But is so much better later.


In my experience, acupuncture works WONDERS on knees in general, but there is actually a decent amount of evidence out there saying that it can be particularly helpful with arthritis of the knee.

A lot of really good studies looked at this and here’s the scoop:

  • There has to be at least 8 needles per session

  • Qi (a deep dull sensation) should be elicited

  • Use of electrical stimulation is a bonus so that there is less chance of adaptation to the needles

  • And the most important guideline: 10 treatments

The research shows that 10 treatments over 5-6 weeks is where the maximum benefit is for treating knee arthritis.


Tendinitis is a common workplace and athletic injury that can be found pretty much anywhere in the body depending on the activity. Lateral epicondylitis (or tennis elbow) has been treated with acupuncture for a long time.

Now you’re going to think this is crazy, but there is a spot on the lower leg called GB-34 that has been shown to be super beneficial in treating tennis elbow. When I treat it, I use GB-34, as well as points more locally to the elbow.

Neurologic disorders

Although none of the research out there shows anything saying that acupuncture is effective for progressive nerve disorders (like HIV-related neuropathy, or nerve symptoms due to Ankylosing Spondylitis), I have had success with symptom management in my office.

So there you go. Sometimes you have to go with clinical insight and not the research!

That being said, acupuncture has been shown to be super effective in treating carpal tunnel syndrome. CTS is one of those REALLY aggravating conditions that prevents people from working, sleeping, etc., and can be pretty difficult to treat.

If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, give me a shout – I’ve gotten some pretty great results with acupuncture!

Final Thoughts

Acupuncture is an AMAZING tool that I am using more and more in practice.

If you have chronic pain that has not really gone away with other methods, or an acute injury that you don’t want to hinder you any further acupuncture is definitely something to consider.

As always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

In health,

Dr. Donald Littlewood