What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a treatment based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a
system of healing that dates back thousands of years. At the core of TCM is the
notion that a type of life force, or energy, known as qi (pronounced "chee")
flows through energy pathways (meridians) in the body. Each meridian corresponds
to one specific organ, or group of organs, that governs particular bodily
functions. The proper flow of qi is thought to create health. Qi maintains the
dynamic balance of yin and yang, which are complementary opposites. According to
TCM, everything in nature has both yin and yang. An imbalance of qi (too much,
too little, or blocked flow) results in disease. In acupuncture, needles are
inserted at points along the meridians to restore balance to the qi. Acupuncture
points, or the specific locations where needles are inserted, are places where
the energy pathway is close to the surface of the skin.
What is the history of acupuncture?
The earliest recorded use of acupuncture dates from 200 BCE. Knowledge of
acupuncture spread from China along Arab trade routes towards the West. Up until
the early 1970s, however, most Americans had never heard of acupuncture.
Acupuncture gained the attention of the American public after President
Nixon's trip to China in 1972. Traveling with Nixon was a New York Times
reporter, James Reston, who received acupuncture in China after undergoing an
emergency appendectomy. He was so impressed with the procedure's ability to
relieve his postoperative pain that he wrote about his experience upon returning
to the United States.
Acupuncture was formally recognized as part of mainstream medicine's range of
healing options in 1997, when the National Institutes of Health issued a
statement documenting its safety and efficacy for a range of health conditions.
Although slowly changing, many conventional physicians remain unfamiliar with
both the theory and practice of acupuncture.
How does acupuncture work?
The effects of acupuncture are complex and how it works is not entirely
clear. Research suggests that the needling process, and other modalities used in
acupuncture, may produce their complex effects on a wide variety of ways in the
brain and the body. For example, it is theorized that stimulated nerve fibers
transmit signals to the spinal cord and brain, thus activating parts of what is
called the central nervous system. The spinal cord and brain then release
certain hormones responsible for making us feel better overall and, more
specifically, feel less pain. In fact, a study using images of the brain
confirmed that acupuncture increases our pain threshold, which may explain its
ability to produce long-term pain relief. Also, acupuncture may increase blood
circulation and body temperature. It may also affect white blood cell activity
(responsible for our immune function), reduce cholesterol and triglyceride
levels, and regulate blood sugar levels. In general, acupuncture appears to
transmit its effects via electric, neurologic, hormonal, lymphatic, and
electromagnetic wave pathways.
What does an acupuncturist do?
In addition to asking questions, the acupuncturist may want to take your
pulse at several points along the wrist and look at your tongue to observe its
shape, color, and coating. He or she may also observe the color and texture of
your skin, your posture, and other physical characteristics that offer clues to
your health. The acupuncturist then asks you to lie down on a padded examining
table, and he or she inserts the needles, twirling or gently jiggling each as it
goes in. You may not feel the needles at all, or you may feel a twitch or a
quick twinge of pain that subsides as soon as the needle is completely in. Once
the needles are all in place, you rest for 15 to 60 minutes. During this time,
you'll probably feel relaxed and sleepy and may even doze off. At the end of the
session, the acupuncturist quickly and painlessly removes the needles.
For certain conditions, acupuncture is more effective when the needles are
heated using a technique known as "moxibustion." The acupuncturist lights a
small bunch of the dried herb moxa (mugwort) and holds it above the needles. The
herb, which burns slowly and gives off a little smoke and a pleasant,
incense-like smell, never directly touches the body. Another variation is
electrical acupuncture. This technique consists of hooking up electrical wires
to the needles and running a weak current through them, which may cause no
sensation at all or a mild tingling. Acupuncturists trained in Chinese herbal
preparations may also prescribe herbs along with acupuncture.
Are there different styles of acupuncture?
There are a number of different approaches to the practice of acupuncture;
some of those most commonly found in the United States today are as
- TCM-based acupuncture -- the most commonly practiced in the
United States today. It focuses on a diagnosis based on eight principles of
complementary opposites (yin/yang, internal/external, excess/deficiency,
- French energetic acupuncture -- mostly used by MD
acupuncturists. Meridian patterns are emphasized, in particular the yin-yang
pairs of primary meridians.
- Korean hand acupuncture -- based on the principle that the
hands and feet have concentrations of qi, and that applying acupuncture needles
to these areas is effective for the entire body.
- Auricular acupuncture -- based on the idea that the ear is a
microcosm of the body. This means that applying acupuncture needles to certain
points on the ear affects corresponding organs. This type of acupuncture is used
widely in treating addiction disorders.
- Myofascially-based acupuncture -- often practiced by physical
therapists, involves feeling the meridian lines in search of tender points, then
applying needles. Tender points indicate areas of abnormal energy flow.
- Japanese styles of acupuncture -- sometimes referred to as
"meridian therapy," tend to put more emphasis on needling technique and feeling
meridians in diagnosis.
How many treatments do I need?
The number of acupuncture treatments you need depends on the complexity of
your illness, whether it's a chronic or recent condition, and your general
health. For example, you may need only one treatment for a recent wrist sprain,
whereas for a long-standing, chronic illness you may need treatments once or
twice a week for several months to get good results.
What is acupuncture good for?
Acupuncture is particularly effective for pain relief and for post-surgery
and chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting. In addition, both the World
Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health recognize that
acupuncture can be a helpful part of a treatment plan for many illnesses. A
partial list includes: addiction (such as alcoholism), asthma, bronchitis,
carpal tunnel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, facial tics, fibromyalgia,
headaches, irregular periods, low back pain, menopausal symptoms, menstrual
cramps, osteoarthritis, sinusitis, spastic colon (often called irritable bowel
syndrome), stroke rehabilitation, tendinitis, tennis elbow, and urinary problems
such as incontinence. You can safely combine acupuncture with prescription drugs
and other conventional treatments, but it is important for your -primary care
physician to be aware of and to monitor how your acupuncture treatment may be
affecting your conventional therapies.
The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture also lists a wide range of
conditions for which acupuncture can be used. In addition to those already
mentioned above, they recommend acupuncture for sports injuries, sprains,
strains, whiplash, neck pain, sciatica, nerve pain due to compression, overuse
syndromes similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, pain resulting from spinal cord
injuries, allergies, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), sore throat (called
pharyngitis), high blood pressure, gastroesophageal reflux (felt as heartburn or
indigestion), ulcers, chronic and recurrent bladder and kidney infections,
premenstrual syndrome (PMS), infertility, endometriosis, memory problems,
insomnia, multiple sclerosis, sensory disturbances, depression, anxiety, and
other psychological disorders.
Should anyone avoid acupuncture?
Some physicians and practitioners may avoid treatment during pregnancy. If
you have been seen by a particular practitioner prior to your pregnancy,
however, it is generally safe to continue receiving treatment from the
practitioner during your pregnancy.
Should I watch out for anything?
Be sure your acupuncturist uses only disposable needles. In addition, if your
acupuncturist is qualified to prescribe herbs and would like you to take them as
part of your treatment, first discuss this with your physician. Herbs are potent
substances that can be harmful if you suffer from certain conditions; they can
also interact with drugs you may be taking and cause side effects.
How can I find a qualified practitioner?
Most states require acupuncturists to be licensed and confer a title (LAc)
that these acupuncturists can use to identify themselves. The American Academy
of Medical Acupuncture
can provide a list of licensed physicians in your area who are also trained to
perform acupuncture. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and
Oriental Medicine certifies acupuncturists (Dipl Ac) and practitioners of
Chinese herbal medicine (Dipl CH) upon passing a qualifying exam. For a list of
these certified practitioners, send a $3 check or money order to the National
Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, 11 Canal Center
Plaza, Suite 300, Alexandria, VA 22314, or find the list for free on the
Internet at www.nccaom.org.
Does my medical insurance cover acupuncture treatments?
An increasing number of insurance providers and HMOs now cover all or part of
the cost of acupuncture treatments, but these providers may have restrictions on
the types of illnesses they cover. Check with your insurance company to see what
your policy offers.
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