Meridians of Health

A short intro to acupuncture & HIV

by Robert Zukowski

acupuncture[dropcap]A[/dropcap]cupuncture is an Eastern healing modality that is said to have originated some 2,500 years ago. It falls under the umbrella of Traditional Chinese Medicine. While it originated in China, it is now widely practiced in the West. Very simply put, acupuncture is a form of complementary and alternative medicine that involves inserting thin needles into the skin, or pricking the skin or tissues with needles, to alleviate pain or to treat various physical, mental, and emotional conditions. But how does it work and why do people living with HIV sometimes look to acupuncture as a complementary therapy? The short answer is a small word with a vast meaning: qi.

Qi, typically pronounced “chee,” can be a little hard to explain, but generally speaking, qi is energy or your life force. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that qi travels through our bodies along specific, energetic pathways, called meridians, nurturing and nourishing the mind, the spirit, and the body. The needles used in acupuncture are meant to stimulate specific points that lie along these meridians, thus improving the flow of qi along the meridians. When qi flows steadily and evenly, and with balance, the body can enjoy a state of good health. When there is an imbalance of qi or there is a blockage preventing the smooth flow of it, it can cause pain, pathology, and dysfunction.

I like to think about the flow of qi and the role it plays in more practical, everyday terms to make something somewhat abstract slightly more tangible. Picture the water that flows through a river as qi. If there was a blockage in the river, preventing a smooth flow of water, what might occur? If you were to step back and look at the river from one end to the other, what might you see? The level of water will swell on one side of the river and diminish on the other. One end of the river may overflow and flood, perhaps damaging the areas surrounding it due to an excess of water. Yet, on the other side, the water levels are depleted; the very water that feeds and nourishes the area around it. What happens to the side of the river that is no longer receiving the water? It is deprived. It becomes deficient. The qi that flows through our bodies via meridians is much the same as the water in that river. A blockage, an imbalance, or an excess or deficiency can have a negative impact anywhere along the path.

According to the AIDS InfoNet, because acupuncture deals with energy balance, there are not specific acupuncture points used to treat HIV. Instead, your acupuncturist will use your pulses and will probably look at your tongue, to find out how your energy flows are out of balance. Many people believe that it helps to improve their overall energy and helps to manage the side effects associated with antiretroviral medications. Some people have used acupuncture to reduce upset stomach or diarrhea caused by their medications. Other people find that it helps ease the pain caused by neuropathy. Since the 1980s, Traditional Chinese Medicine has been used to help alleviate a variety of side effects and symptoms such as muscle pain, sore throats, fatigue, headaches, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, night sweats, swollen lymph glands, stress, and anxiety. It is believed that acupuncture can help in increasing immunity by raising endorphin levels, the number of antibodies, and white blood cell levels. Short-term benefits, such as increased energy levels, improved sense of well-being and weight gain, are also experienced by many who use acupuncture.

Based on your particular energetic imbalances, your acupuncturist will determine which points along a meridian or meridians to stimulate. Needles will be inserted at those points. Some practitioners may employ additional techniques to increase the flow of qi. Again, according to the AIDS InfoNet, the needles might be stimulated with a very mild electric current. This is called electroacupuncture. Moxibustion is another possibility. Moxa is soft material prepared from dried mugwort, an herb. Moxa may be put on the top end of acupuncture needles or (rarely) right on the skin. Moxa is burned to provide penetrating heat. A practice called cupping may also be used. Round glass cups can be used to create suction over specific points. The suction stimulates the flow of energy.

In my personal experience, I have left acupuncture treatment sessions with techniques intended to work over time. In some instances, an acupuncturist may use small beads or tiny needles held in place with adhesive to keep pressure on an acupuncture point for a few days.

As always, when considering the addition of any form of complementary or alternative medical treatment it is important to speak to your doctor first. In addition, it is important to provide a complete and complex medical history to your acupuncturist. For example, there are some points on the body that should not be stimulated during pregnancy. To avoid any contraindications, always provide an excess of medical information to your practitioners when seeking out complementary or alternative medical treatments.


After a lengthy career in the arts and LGBT activism, Robert Zukowski pursued his goal of a career in complementary and alternative healthcare. He is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer and lecturer in the field of therapeutic massage therapy.