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Fall 1998

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

HIV and AIDS respond extremely well to acupuncture. By supporting the immune system, acupuncture makes individuals more able to heal themselves and meet the challenges that are brought about by HIV. People with HIV who receive acupuncture treatment live longer and stay healthier.

Over the last 25 years, acupuncture in the U.S. has grown from a virtually unknown system of medicine to one used by millions to treat a wide range of conditions. Acupuncture is now widely used both as an adjunct to standard Western medicine and as an effective form of healthcare in its own right. In fact, its use with people living with HIV is one of the major causes of its growth and popularity in the West. Acupuncture is a great way to help relieve symptoms and boost the immune system.

Acupuncture was developed in ancient China, where its history can be traced over 3,000 years. The fundamental principle behind the practice of acupuncture is the attention given to the cause rather than the symptoms of disease, and it is a system based completely on the healing powers of nature. Over those thousands of years, the diagnosis and treatment have gone virtually unchanged, because the cycles and movement of Nature never change.

Acupuncture works by supporting and strengthening a person's own ability to heal. Everyone has innate powers of healing to see us through a myriad of daily scrapes, bruises, colds, headaches, and so on. But there are times when our own abilities become overwhelmed, and we seek the help of a medical practitioner, whether it be a medical doctor, osteopath, acupuncturist, massage therapist, chiropractor, naturopath, etc. How these different forms of medicine help a person varies, and each has its own strengths.

"Western medicine" does many miraculous things, especially in the areas of infection, emergency care, and surgeries. Western medicine works by stepping in to fill roles the body often cannot. While modern Western medicine progresses, and is generally seen to improve in technique as the years pass, acupuncture is a timeless method of strengthening the body -- as well as the mental and emotional components of an individual.

Because acupuncture works on all these levels simultaneously, when you receive acupuncture treatment, you should feel profound, positive changes on all those levels. For example, Ted (all names of persons mentioned here have been changed) came to see me with diarrhea, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and depression. Within a month of starting treatment, his physical symptoms were virtually gone, his emotional state had improved dramatically, and he now only has occasional minor recurrences of diarrhea and insomnia.

The majority of people who try acupuncture experience a deep sense of peacefulness and a re-energizing of the system. Most of my patients say that they feel better after a few sessions than they have in years. The ancient Chinese knew that whatever affects the body also has an impact on the mind, emotions, and vitality of a person. Likewise, when someone feels depressed or their energy is low, there is a reflection of that in the body, making it weaker and less able to deal with the day-to-day challenges of life. Another patient, George, complained of anxiety and fatigue. After several treatments, his energy was up, and he told me, "I just don't let the little things worry me like I used to. I'm much calmer." Timing is essential, too -- by treating the right point at the right time; patients can have much greater happiness and clarity in their lives.

The symptoms that acupuncture treats

Acupuncture can treat many of the symptoms associated with HIV: difficulty sleeping, low energy, peripheral neuropathy, nausea, anxiety, depression, muscle tension, urinary difficulties, diarrhea, constipation, poor digestion, acid stomach, headaches, bloating, skin conditions, liver toxicity, poor breathing, excess mucous, fevers and chills, "floaters," and many others. Here's another example. Todd's main complaint was Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) in his right calf, with swelling that was uncomfortable. Acupuncture did not remove the KS, but it has stopped his bouts of swelling. He walks with more ease now than he did when we first met.

How it works

Acupuncture uses tiny needles to stimulate certain points; these acupuncture points lie on pathways, or "meridians" that cover the body. The various points may stimulate a certain organ, such as the lungs, and strengthen breathing; or the liver, and help the liver's function of filtering toxins. There are 12 organs in total that influence our health.

These acupuncture points can also remove blockages that sometimes occur on the meridian pathways. These blockages by themselves can cause serious disease or symptoms, yet can be treated quite easily. An example of this is Karen, who had psoriasis over her entire body, worst on her hands and feet, and highly elevated liver enzyme levels. After opening up a block on the meridians on her first acupuncture treatment, the psoriasis went away completely, and her liver counts came back to normal levels.

How does acupuncture work with the new drugs and combination therapies?

As mentioned above, acupuncture treatment helps the liver in its role of filtering out the toxins from the body. Any medication has by-products that must eventually be flushed out of the system; my observation over the years is that the liver usually cannot entirely keep up with the levels of toxins built up when one is taking several medications at the same time.

How to find a good acupuncturist

Look for someone with experience in treating HIV, who will develop a plan and work with your entire constitution, not just symptoms. Like any other profession, there are more-skilled and less-skilled practitioners, and acupuncture makes a profound difference with virtually all patients. Therefore, if you are unhappy with one acupuncturist, try another.

The 'Five Elements'

The ancient Chinese saw a person as a reflection of the whole of Nature -- the Universe in a microcosm. Treating a patient with medicine was not unlike tending to a garden. There are five fundamental aspects, or Elements, of Nature: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. When these elements are in balance, things are healthy, just as a garden needs a healthy balance of sun, soil, nutrients, and water. Each Element relates to several of the 12 organs, and these Elements -- and therefore the organs -- have influences upon one another. Here is how they are reflected in a human:

Fire relates to the heart, the body's thermostat, body heat, perspiration, and the health of the blood; fire deals emotionally with love, excitement, relationships, sexuality, vulnerability, and one's sense of control.

Earth relates to the stomach and the spleen, digestion, nutrition, and the muscles; earth deals emotionally with thoughtfulness, feeling "centered," and the ability to sympathize.

Metal relates to the lungs and the colon, breathing, vitamins and trace minerals, and the skin; metal deals emotionally with grief, inspiration, and spirituality.

Water relates to the bladder, kidneys, urinary tract, and bone strength; water deals emotionally with fear and commitment, as well as our deepest inner power and wisdom.

Wood relates to the liver and gall bladder, tendons, eyes, and vision; wood deals emotionally with anger, frustration, and decision-making, as well as planning and creativity.

In the Chinese model of health, when all of these are strong and in relative balance with one another, then the body and the mind are happiest and working as well as they possibly can. In this state they are most able to ward off illness and maintain energy. When one or more of the elements is weak, then everything is affected, the same way a garden will wilt and dry up if it receives insufficient water, or won't bloom and grow when it doesn't receive enough sunlight. Acupuncturists are trained to see the strength of each Element and how they fit together as a whole in any individual.

Carl Dahlgren, L. Ac., trained in acupuncture in the U. S. and England from 1987 to 1991. He has been practicing acupuncture in Seattle since 1992, and was the acupuncturist for the Bailey-Boushay Adult Day Health Program from its opening in 1992 until December 1997.

Back to STEP Perspective Fall 1998 contents page.

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

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This article was provided by Seattle Treatment Education Project. It is a part of the publication STEP Perspective.
See Also
Acupuncture & HIV