June 29, 2021 -- The past 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic have brought pain and heartbreak to millions of Americans. Now, many are turning to a practice that has been around for thousands of years to find peace and pain relief.
For many, acupuncture -- an ancient way of using needles to treat pain -- is the last post-COVID-19 relief method they haven’t already tried.
“We are desperate for ways to feel better. No one got out of the pandemic unaffected -- everyone is suffering,” says Caren Campbell, MD, a dermatologist in San Francisco.
“The pandemic has worsened a pre-existing mental health care crisis in the U.S. Any stress-reducing tool is much needed,” Campbell says.
Campbell is an enthusiast of the Chinese practice that records show has been around for more than 2,000 years.
“Acupuncture is a huge stress and pain-relieving visit for me,” she says.
Gudrun Snyder, DAc, founder of Moon Rabbit Acupuncture in Chicago, says studies have shown that COVID-19 causes what’s known as a “cytokine storm” that causes inflammation that could kill tissue and damage organs.
A study from Harvard University in 2020 found acupuncture reduced the impact of cytokine storms in mice. Another study from Oxford University found acupuncture treatment for COVID-19 suppressed the inflammation caused by stress, improved immunity, regulated nervous system functions, and helped cancer patients with COVID-19.
“With acupuncture, your body goes into a state of relaxation,” says Tsao-Lin Moy, a certified acupuncture therapist and licensed Chinese herbal medicine practitioner in New York City. “And once the body is able to have that experience, it can remember to always go there.”
Your body is able to switch to the resting mode because certain neuropeptides, small proteins in the body, are released in the brain to signal it to go into that state of rest, say authors of a 2013 study on acupuncture’s effects.
Moy also points out that medications don’t always help. Instead, she says, our body’s nervous system needs to go into a place of rest for natural healing to take place.
Jenna Gill, a licensed acupuncture therapist in New York City, says, “Acupuncture is helping your body get into the parasympathetic nervous system mode,” where the heart and breathing rates slow, blood pressure lowers, and digestion is improved.
She compared this to the state our bodies have been in throughout the pandemic -- fight and flight mode -- that caused stress and enhanced symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Acupuncture, meanwhile, releases endorphins that maintain balance in your mind and body.
Gill says she’s seen a huge increase in people visiting acupuncture clinics to treat insomnia, anxiety, or stress. Snyder, from Moon Rabbit Acupuncture, says that makes sense as acupuncture is safer and easier than traditional medicine, and is often cheaper thanks to health insurance.
One reason acupuncture may be an easier way of dealing with pain, Gill says, is not all patients like swallowing pills. She says medications, which are the main pain treatment method in Western medicine, is “literally just putting a masking on your symptoms.” In other words, symptoms are your body’s way of communicating with you.
Through the aches and pains you feel, you can find out the root causes of what is wrong with you.
Still, Gill doesn’t criticize Western medicine and it’s way of healing people, but offers what she thinks is a better solution. Through acupuncture, she says, you can discover the root causes of a particular symptom.
“Our body was designed to heal itself. Stress and other factors come in the way and obstruct an efficient flow of good energy and blood through blood vessels. Acupuncture helps to restore your body’s healing power,” Gill says.
But there are other ways to manage pain, anxiety, depression, or stress. Campbell, the San Francisco dermatologist, says, “Therapy with a trained mental health professional, exercise, journaling, meditation, nature, and reconnecting with our support systems -- friends, family, and hobbies” are also useful.
“The food you eat, your environment, your relationships, and the thoughts that you have matter as well,” Moy says.
She also says people who are very negative or pessimistic are not as healthy as optimistic people.
Positive people secrete more endorphins, dopamines, and serotonin, which can lead to better health, Moy says. If you connect the dots, you’ll find out that being happy is a way of reducing the “free radicals that stress releases which damages your body,” Campbell says.
Snyder says acupuncture decreases your cortisol levels, which automatically kick starts your “happy hormones.”
In short, Snyder suggests we “marry Eastern and Western medicine together.”
We can do this by using our pharmaceuticals and Western doctors, she says, but also Eastern medicine to let our mind and body heal as health is related to a sound mind-body connection.
Also, don’t underestimate the whole power of touch, Snyder says. She noticed that many people try acupuncture just because they want someone to pay attention to them, take care of them, all of which makes them feel much better.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Gudrun Snyder as saying acupuncture increases cortisol levels. The procedure actually decreases cortisol.