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What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a healing practice that uses thin needles inserted into body tissues to effect physiological and/or psychological changes which help correct health problems.

The practice of acupuncture, however, generally is more than just the technique of using needles. Acupuncture is based upon an elaborate system of theory, diagnosis and methodology that is different from traditional Western medicine. This system originated in China about 2000 years ago, has been practiced and developed further in several Asian cultures throughout its history, and was introduced and further developed in Europe and America in the last century.

The practice of acupuncture has been institutionalized in many countries and in most of the United States as a licensed profession, establishing standards of academic and clinical training for practitioners. California has by far the most Licensed Acupuncturists in the United States, having issued to date more the 7000 licenses. California has also the highest standards for entry into the profession, requiring a Masters level degree and a rigorous State examination.

Acupuncture is often used in conjunction with Chinese herbal medicine. "With acupuncture from the outside, and herbal medicine from the inside, the myriad diseases have no place to hide." See further the section in this web side on herbal medicine.

How does Acupuncture work?

Acupuncture needles are so thin (only about 0.12-0.35 mm in diameter) that they generally do not actually alter or damage the tissues where they are inserted. What they do is elicit reactions that influence the activity of living tissue and induce the transmission of physiological messages throughout the body. The body itself then adjusts and changes its processes to effect healing. The needles are used to trigger and regulate the body's own natural functions. The acupuncture system is uses the concept of 'Qi' to signify the activity that takes place in living tissues, together with the idea of pathways (channels or meridians) by which this activity is communicated. Specific locations on these pathways (acupuncture points) have been identified where the Qi can be accessed for diagnosis and treatment. Since Qi does not refer to a physical substance - you can not put it in a bottle or weigh it - the channels in which it operates are not like physical tubes or wires, in particular, cannot be identified with, say, blood vessels or nerve pathways. They are rather the pathways along which reactions and activities have been observed to propagate in living tissue. The formulation of these pathways is the result of centuries of observation and therapeutic experimentation with the way bodily tissues and functions behave in both healthy and diseased conditions. From a modern, scientific perspective, the activities and communication of Qi involve complex combinations of the actions of nerves, muscles, vessels, connective tissues, fluids, hormones, neurotransmitters, etc. but cannot be reduced to any one of these aspects. Although these pathways and the Qi cannot be physically isolated, they can be reliably and predictably observed, manipulated and measured. The purpose of using needles at points on the pathways of Qi is to help change the activities in tissues, and propagate these changes around the body to correct disturbances, imbalances, pain, and other effects of illness and disease. Another aspect of how acupuncture works is that it induces awareness. At the closest level, this is the recognition by the body's tissues near where the needles are present. At another level, the patient becomes aware of the needles, and of changes in sensation where they are placed and throughout other parts of the body. At yet another level, the patient can then cultivate a new awareness of their body and it's functioning, not just during acupuncture treatment, which in turn can influence behavior and attitude to not only induce healing, but also to influence factors which lead to problems in the first place.

What is Acupuncture good for?

Most generally, acupuncture is used to modify activity in the body. This activity can be sensations, like pain, heat, cold, tingling, etc. It can also affect functions like respiration, digestion, or elimination, as well as muscular and joint motion. In addition, acupuncture can influence the central nervous system (CNS), peripheral nervous system (PNS) and autonomic nervous system (ANS), as well as hormonal activity. From another perspective, acupuncture can influence not only physical activities in the body, but also emotional, mental, and even 'spiritual' dimensions of human experience, as the Qi, or living activity, manifests at all these levels. Acupuncture is applied in the context of an understanding that illness and disease (aside from trauma/injury induced conditions) comes about in a gradual process through several stages:

  • Health problems usually begin with some form of energetic disturbance or imbalance (emotional or life-style).

  • Over time, this results in definite functional problems (identifiable illness, but lacking bio-mechanical damage, i.e. can't be quantified by laboratory testing or radiological imaging).

  • Eventually this results in patent organic disease (visible in lab tests, imaging, or even to the naked eye), and serious impact on one's life.

1) The diagnostic aspect of the acupuncture system is particularly suited to recognizing the first, energetic stage and effecting changes to correct imbalances and hence arrest the process towards more serious problems. This is the truest form of preventative treatment, but is less often used, as people generally seek help only when their health and life are seriously affected (i.e. in stages 2 or 3).

2) Functional problems are also well suited to acupuncture treatment, as these involve distortions or imbalances in normal activity. Acupuncture is used to regulate activity and restore healthy balance. Examples include:

  • respiratory - e.g. allergies

  • fatigue, sleep problems

  • stress-related conditions

  • appetite and digestive disorders

  • musculo-skeletal disorders and pain

  • uro-genital functional disorders

  • childhood development issues

  • aging issues

3) Organic disease and physical injury, usually calls for conventional medical treatment even a visit to an emergency care center. Acupuncture can be used effectively for many kinds of non-critical conditions, and also can offer significant help in conjunction with conventional medical treatment, such as tissue healing, drug side effects or post-surgical recovery. Common minor physical injuries, such as muscular strains and sprains, can be treated very effectively with acupuncture. These injuries often involve a form of shock and blockage (pain) in the tissues, which calls for opening up the pathways to increase the circulation of blood, fluids and nervous activity to speed the tissue healing process. In particular, injuries that are not adequately resolved (in a relatively short time-span) can result in a sort of 'memory' of the damage being retained in the tissue. This can lead to repeated injury, or decreased function, and surface many years after the original incident. Acupuncture treatment, applied to correct systemic effects in addition to the localized damage, can promote maximally complete resolution of such problems.

Is Acupuncture safe and effective?

About 2000 years of history in Asia attest to the fact that acupuncture works and is safe. In the USA, after decades of study and testing, the FDA declared, in 1997, that the use of acupuncture needling was safe and effective by modern, scientific standards. Advances in the technology and quality control of manufacturing needles and the modern use of sterile, disposable needles (to be used only once) have further contributed to assuring the safety of their use.

The practice of acupuncture is regulated in most States. In California it is licensed and regulated by the Acupuncture Board, under the State Department of Consumer Affairs. Prerequisite to being granted the license (L.Ac.), practitioners must have completed a masters degree in specialized education in the theory and practice of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, and have successfully passed a rigorous State examination.

Over the last quarter century since acupuncture was first licensed in California, profession has demonstrated an excellent safety record. Hygienic safety and clean-needle technique, in addition to the nearly universal use of disposable needles by L.Ac.s constitute a standard of safety equal to that in other medical professions.

Incidentally, recently noted statements by blood donor centers, that the use of acupuncture disqualifies one from donating blood, are in violation of the law. In prior cases of such discrimination, legal decisions have mandated that acupuncture, on the basis of its regulation and safety record, is no more a risk for blood contamination than are common medical and dental procedures.

Scientific research, starting decades ago with the validation of acupuncture's ability to reduce pain, has increased substantially over the last decade. Today major studies are underway in a number of areas of application, at schools and clinical centers across the country, including Stanford University. Results from completed studies, and in-progress reports indicate that the effectiveness of acupuncture is being validated.

An often heard criticism, that acupuncture applications are only about 25% scientifically proven, should be understood in the context that the same figure - about 25% -- also applies to the number of conventional (Western) medical procedures, for instance, surgical procedures, that have been scientifically validated. The practice of medicine, of the traditional Oriental variety as well as the modern Western form, is predominantly an empirical science, or perhaps more accurately, is part science and part art.

The following practitioners at IHA offer acupuncture:


Larry Freeman, MD, L. Ac.


Chris Macie, L.Ac. - Acupuncture and Herbal Therapy


John Flavin, L.Ac. - Acupuncture and Herbal Therapy


Eunhan Lee, L.Ac. - Acupuncture and Herbal Therapy




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