Acupuncture for orthopedic surgery and rheumatic conditions


What is acupuncture ?

Acupuncture is a medical treatment involving the needling of specific points on the surface of the body to treat disease and decrease pain. Acupuncture needles are very thin and strong metal needles. This ancient form of healing predates recorded history and is widely practiced around the world. The roots of modern acupuncture come from ancient Chinese scholars who developed a system of meridians for diagnostic and treatment points. This discipline aims to rebalance the “qi” (vital energy or life force, sometimes spelled “chi”, “ch’i” or “ki”) of the body after illness or injury.

Acupuncture uses very fine needles to treat various conditions.

How does acupuncture work?

There are many theories about how acupuncture works. Classical theories are based on energy channels (meridians) that run throughout the body along specific paths. These pathways are called organs, but should not be confused with the organ itself. For example, in acupuncture, the word “kidney” refers to the bones, marrow and joints, as well as a person’s will and motivation. These pathways, or networks, interact with internal and external environments and allow vital energy (qi) to move throughout the body. Pathologies (diseases and medical conditions) present as disturbances within these channels and thus block the normal flow of qi. In acupuncture, special needles are used to stimulate circulation and restore energy/the natural flow of qi.

Modern theories of acupuncture claim that needles affect the nervous system, circulatory system, lymphatic system, and electromagnetic quality of interstitial fluid at fascia level. This growing number of modern acupuncture theories indicate that needle stimulation increases the natural release of endorphins in the body, which alleviates pain and promotes overall health.

What is acupuncture used for?

Acupuncture can treat almost every organ system in the body. However, in the United States it is most widely used for musculoskeletal conditions, such as lower back pain and osteoarthritis. It may also be helpful in inflammatory forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, but should be used in conjunction with disease-modifying agents recommended by a rheumatologist.

Soft tissue wounds, muscle spasms, sprains and strains are among the most frequently and successfully treated acute musculoskeletal conditions with acupuncture. Acupuncture is also appropriate for treating chronic musculoskeletal pain as part of a multimodal approach, such as repetitive strain disorder, myofascial pain, arthralgia (joint pain), degenerative disc disease and surgical pain postoperative. It is used as an adjuvant for traditional western medicines.

What does acupuncture treatment consist of?

The acupuncture treatment itself involves inserting fine needles into the body. The location of the needles depends on the pathology of the disease and is ultimately designed to influence the flow of qi throughout the body. Needles can be inserted directly, at the point of injury or pathology, or they can be inserted at more distant points along the channels. There are also microsystems that exist in various parts of the body, such as in the ear or the hand, which have maps of the whole body contained in that small area. Needles can be placed at the location that corresponds to the affected organ system, or at other specific points (e.g. Shen Men and Point Zero) that have global effects on the body that can help, among other things , to increase overall endorphin levels.

Dr. Stephanie Cheng performs acupuncture on a patient.

Dr. Stephanie Cheng treating a patient using auricular acupuncture.

How can acupuncture help me with my orthopedic surgery?

Acupuncture can be helpful before, during, and after surgery for a number of reasons. Before surgery, it can increase your endorphin levels, which can relieve anticipated surgical pain, decrease anxiety, and improve overall health. Because surgery is traumatic to the body, maximizing a person’s emotional and physical well-being is beneficial to a good post-surgical outcome. Additionally, acupuncture can also help with many other side effects of surgery, including postoperative nausea/vomiting, constipation, urinary retention, and headaches.

What are the risks associated with acupuncture?

In the hands of appropriately trained people in the discipline of acupuncture, it is incredibly safe. The needles used are threadlike and usually short, so it is difficult to cause permanent problems. However, any time a foreign object enters the body, there is a risk of infection, bleeding, needle sticking, allergic reaction (especially to nickel, a metal used in most acupuncture needles), dizziness (needle shock) or organ damage. Some patients also report feeling tired, restless or in tears after their treatment.

It is important to find a well-trained practitioner to maximize your treatment and minimize side effects. Each US state has its own requirements for the practice of acupuncture. Research your state’s requirements and make sure any practitioner you see meets them. It is recommended to speak with your primary care physician when evaluating acupuncture services.

Published: 01/25/2018


Profile of Stephanie Cheng, MD

Stephanie Cheng, MD

Assistant anesthetist, Hospital for Special Surgery
Assistant Professor of Clinical Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medical College


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