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Acupuncture and holistic medicine are two terms that have become popular in today's culture. But what exactly is acupuncture and what do those little needles really do? We sat down with Dr. Liem Quang Le, DAOM at Moffitt, to learn more about acupuncture and how it can support patients.

1. What is acupuncture and how does it work?

First, I would like to clarify that Chinese medicine is an entire system of medicine, similar to conventional medicine. However, unlike conventional medicine, Chinese medicine is not broken up into specific departments like cardiology or orthopedics. In Chinese medicine, the doctor treats the person as a complex but single system, for which the treatments are individualized.

Dr. Liem Quang Le

Dr. Liem Quang Le, DAOM

Acupuncture is just one tool that I can use when treating a patient. That being said, acupuncture is the use of a very fine, sterilized needle that is gently inserted into the body. The needles are used to elicit specific effects in the body, depending on the issue being addressed. A lot of people are familiar with traditional acupuncture maps that show all the different channels running through the body. However, when I am explaining this process to a patient, I like to explain that these channels follow nerve pathways, as well as the lymphatic pathways. In a broad sense, acupuncture increases circulation. There is a saying in Chinese medicine, “Where there’s free flow there’s no pain or ailment, but when there’s no free flow that’s when the pain and ailment occur.” A headache, for example, might be due to a lack of circulation, typically because of tight muscles. If a muscle is tight, it inhibits the flow of blood through the body. Acupuncture works to relax muscles and increase blood flow. At the same time, it stimulates the nervous system by sending signals to the brain to release endorphins, our body’s natural pain relievers.

2. What would you say, or recommend to someone who’s never had acupuncture?

It’s not like what you see in the movies! The body is not covered head to toe in needles, and it is not painful. The needles are about as thin as a strand of hair. Some patients don’t even feel the needles being inserted. It is also not a miracle cure! In many cases, it might take multiple sessions for a patient to feel relief, particularly if the issue being addressed has been ongoing/chronic. Sure, we have situations where a couple treatments will do the trick, but for the most part, acupuncture is a process just like physical therapy, don’t be discouraged if you don’t experience miraculous results by the end of one session.

Acupuncture has a cumulative effect; each treatment builds on each other. I also think it’s important to stress that every doctor has their own approach, and if one doctor’s approach doesn’t work for you, don’t be afraid to try a different doctor. I was recently inspired by a patient who was struggling with a burning arm pain. She had seen a variety of doctors, and no one was able to help her. After a multitude of referrals, she was sent to me, and I was able to help alleviate her pain. It just reminded me how different everyone’s approach is, and that it’s important to give acupuncture a try to help address any health issue that you might be experiencing.

3. In what ways does acupuncture benefit cancer patients specifically? 

Everyone’s pain is different, and so there are many ways that we can approach the management of their pain. Needles stimulate the nervous system, which in turn signals to the brain to release hormones such as opioids or endorphins. These hormones are the body’s natural painkillers and help to boost our moods. On a physical level, let’s say someone has a tumor, and it’s causing them a lot of pain. That tumor is likely pressing on nerves, and the muscles surrounding the tumor tighten, causing the nerves to fire and send pain signals to the brain. By inserting a needle, I can relax the muscle and calm the nerves, reducing the pain signal from firing. It is also important to note that acupuncture can also help to address issues for cancer patients other than pain, including, boosting immune function, enhancing mood, treating chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, and helping reduce nausea and vomiting, to name a few.

4. How is a holistic approach different from Western medicine?

The biggest difference is that Chinese medicine views and addresses the body as a whole unified system, whereas in conventional medicine, general approaches view the body as several distinct systems and tend to address individual compartments of the body. The mind, body, and spirit are all connected. In traditional Chinese medicine, when we treat someone, we treat them as an individual because each person is unique. As each person has a unique personality, so does our body in regards to each person’s baselines—how it responds and functions, etc.

A room of people might have headaches, but each person has a headache due to a different underlying cause. Chinese medicine addresses the root cause of the headache, rather than simply addressing the headache utilizing the same approach for each person (e.g ,a pain medication). For example, someone might have a headache due to emotional issues, or physical issues, or nutritional issues—my medicine focuses on these discrepancies and works with the patient on those issues as well, not just the physical headache.

5. What are some of the benefits of a holistic approach?

What I like about acupuncture is that it's extremely practical. I had a lung cancer patient who needed to use an oxygen tank to be able to breathe comfortably. The patient also had a chronic cough that the prescribed medications didn’t seem to be mitigating. Her daughter was desperate and ended up coming to me for help. I gave her an acupuncture treatment and also used cupping, another technique that is commonly implemented in Chinese medicine.

The focus of the treatment was to relax the muscles surrounding her chest and back and allow her to expand her diaphragm. The next day she didn’t need the use of her oxygen tank and the cough was greatly diminished. She continued the treatments and actually never used the oxygen tank again. Acupuncture is just one modality of my medicine; there are so many other complementary tools—including nutritional guidance. I’d have to say that the multi-pronged perspective/strategies that aims to factor for the whole patient is one of the things I that love most about a holistic approach.