The Finer Points of Healing: Understanding Acupuncture

Patients walking through Virginia Mason’s Health Resources Building in Seattle might be surprised to see signs for the Center for Integrative Medicine. Integrative medicine on a hospital campus? Absolutely! It is actually a perfect fit.

Integrative or complementary medicines like acupuncture, naturopathic medicine and massage have long been recognized as beneficial to patients, especially in conjunction with traditional Western medicine. Lela Altman, ND, LAc, is one of the integrative medicine providers at the Virginia Mason Center for Integrative Medicine. We recently asked Dr. Altman to answer some common questions about acupuncture – what it is, what it treats and who it helps. 

What is acupuncture?


Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that is around 5,000 years old. Practitioners originally used carved bones to apply pressure to specific points on the body – like acupressure. The difference is acupuncture evolved to use small needles to puncture the skin.

There are more than 2,000 acupuncture points on the body, along a network of pathways called meridians. These pathways create an energy flow through the body known as Qi (pronounced “chee”). An imbalance or disruption of Qi can happen in response to diet, lifestyle, injuries or illness. Applying acupuncture to certain points improves the flow of Qi, thereby improving health.

There are different styles of acupuncture, such as Japanese, Korean, traditional Chinese and Five-Element. With the different styles there are slight variations in acupuncture point locations, but the acupuncture point numbers – the specific points assigned to different areas of the body – are the same across all the different styles. The application of needles can also be different – from lightly tapped in and barely breaking the skin, to needles inserted to greater depths.

Why do acupuncture? What are its benefits?

Acupuncture can be used for most any condition you are treating. It is primarily used for pain reduction, whatever the cause of the pain. It’s highly effective with musculoskeletal pain.

Acupuncture has several other uses – from treating chemotherapy side effects in cancer patients, to getting over a cold more quickly; from dealing with the effects of trauma, to improving mood and diminishing stress. It is frequently used for infertility and hormone balancing issues. It is also highly effective for treating sciatica. Acupuncture can help with circulatory issues, neuropathy, digestive problems including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), sleep disorders like insomnia, depression and anxiety.

Acupuncture typically won’t work for conditions like high cholesterol. But it can be quite beneficial when used in conjunction with other medical treatments.

How long do the effects of treatment last?

Acupuncture results depend on the person and condition. Some people feel better with one treatment – like someone with a stomach flu. Others with chronic conditions that won’t go away, like multiple sclerosis (MS), receive regular and more frequent treatments – sometimes multiple times a week.

Usually patients start acupuncture once a week, for four to six weeks. Then depending on the condition, treatment can be less frequent after that. Some patients do an acupuncture wellness “tune-up” once a month or every six months. In China, more frequent or even daily acupuncture treatment is normal.

Is acupuncture for everyone?

People who are extremely afraid of needles or are highly anxious may not be good candidates for acupuncture. However, acupuncture is highly beneficial for treating anxiety. So it’s possible to start with acupressure on anxious and needle phobic patients, then slowly work towards tolerating needles.

Acupuncture can help most people, even children. There are conditions that must be handled with caution. For example, patients on blood thinners are more prone to bruising. And some points on the body should not be used on pregnant people. But overall, acupuncture is usually safe for everyone.

What does everyone ask about acupuncture?

Does it really work? Yes. There’s a lot of data behind the efficacy of acupuncture. That’s why it’s adopted in so many health care organizations, such as Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins and Mayo Clinic.

Does it hurt? Many people are afraid that the needles will hurt. But most people have no problem tolerating them. The needles are tiny and solid. And acupuncture can be super calming. People often fall asleep during sessions.

Where do you put the needles? Everywhere. Needles can be inserted from the top of the head to the bottoms of the feet. There are hundreds of points in the ear alone.

What are common misconceptions about acupuncture?

People are often surprised that the places acupuncturists put the needles in are far from the problem area. They’re working on meridians that run from the head to the foot. So it’s not unusual to needle the hands or the feet for a problem somewhere else.

Some people worry needles will be reused, but they’re not. All needles are single-use and are disposed in a sharps container afterwards. All reputable acupuncturists will practice needle safety and dispose needles after one use.

Final thoughts?

Acupuncture is a healing modality that can help most any person and treat nearly any condition. It’s a low-risk treatment option that is highly effective, either by itself, or in conjunction with traditional Western medicine.


Lela D. Altman, ND, LAc, practices at Virginia Mason’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Altman also teaches several classes and supervises clinical education at Bastyr University, as well as supervises the Digestive Wellness Clinic at Bastyr University.


  1. Can VM staff with First choice insurance get acupuncture at the Center for Integrative medicine?

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