All About Acupuncture
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is one of the oldest, most commonly used systems of healing
in the world. Originating in China some 3,500 years ago, only in the last
three decades has it become popular in the United States. In 1993, the
Food and Drug Administration estimated that Americans made up to 12 million
visits per year to acupuncture practitioners and spent upwards of half
a billion dollars on acupuncture treatments.
Traditional Chinese medicine hold that there are as many as 2,000 acupuncture points on
the human body, which are connected by 20 pathways (12 main, 8 secondary) called meridians.
These meridians conduct energy, or qi (pronounced "chi"), between the surface of the
body and its internal organs. Each point has a different effect on the qi that passes
Qi is believed to help regulate balance in the body. It is influenced by the
opposing forces of yin and yang, which represent positive and negative energy and forces in
the universe and human body. Acupuncture is believed to keep the balance between yin and
yang, thus allowing for the normal flow of qi throughout the body and restoring health to the
mind and body.
How does it work?
Several theories have been presented as to exactly how acupuncture works. One
theory suggests that pain impulses are blocked from reaching the spinal cord or brain at
various "gates" to these areas. Since a majority of acupuncture points are either connected to
(or are located near) neural structures, this suggests that acupuncture stimulates the
Another theory suggests that acupuncture stimulates the body to produce
narcotic-like substances called endorphins, which reduce pain. Other studies have found that other
pain-relieving substances called opiods may be released into the body during
Does it hurt?
Unlike hypodermic needles, acupuncture needles are solid and hair-thin, and they are
not designed to cut the skin. They are also inserted to much more shallow levels
than hypodermic needles, generally no more than a half-inch to an inch depending on the type
of treatment being delivered.
While each person experiences acupuncture differently, most people feel only a
minimal amount of pain as the needles are inserted. Some people reportedly feel a sensation
of excitement, while others feel relaxed. If you experience significant pain from the
needles, it may be a sign that the procedure is being done improperly.
Is it safe?
When practiced by a licensed, trained acupuncturist, acupuncture is extremely safe. As
a system of health care, acupuncture already has some inherent safeguards. Because
the treatment is drug-free, patients do not have to worry about taking several doses of
a medication or suffering a possible adverse reaction.
Properly administered, acupuncture does no harm. However, there are certain conditions
you should notify an acupuncturist about before undergoing treatment. If you have a
pacemaker, for instance, you should not receive electroacupuncture due to the possibility
of electromagnetic interference with the pacemaker. Similarly, if you have a tendency to
bleed or bruise easily, or if you are a hemophiliac, you may want to consider a different type
What conditions does it treat?
In the late 1970s, the World Health Organization recognized the ability of acupuncture
and Oriental medicine to treat nearly four dozen common ailments, including
neuromusculoskeletal conditions (such as arthritis, neuralgia, insomnia, dizziness, and neck/shoulder
pain); emotional and psychological disorders (such as depression and anxiety);
circulatory disorders (such as hypertension, angina pectoris, arteriosclerosis and anemia);
addictions to alcohol, nicotine and other drugs; respiratory disorders (such as emphysema,
sinusitis, allergies and bronchitis); and gastrointestinal conditions (such as food allergies,
ulcers, chronic diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, intestinal weakness, anorexia and gastritis).
In 1997, a consensus statement released by the National Institutes of Health
found that acupuncture could be useful by itself or in combination with
other therapies to treat addiction, headaches, menstrual cramps, tennis
elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, lower back pain,
carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma.
Other studies have demonstrated that acupuncture may help in the rehabilitation
of stroke patients and can relieve nausea in patients recovering from
What should I expect on my first visit?
As with most health practitioners, the first visit to an acupuncturist
usually begins with the practitioner taking a detailed history. Since
traditional Chinese medicine takes a more holistic approach to patient
care than Western medicine, you may be asked questions that appear unimportant
(questions about your sleep habits, your ability to tolerate heat or cold,
your dietary habits, etc.) but are actually vital to the type of care
you will receive.
After reviewing your history, the practitioner will begin diagnosing
your ailment. Depending on your condition, you may be subjected to an
examination of the tongue, as well as an examination of the pulse
a major diagnostic technique in traditional Chinese medicine.
Using all of the information obtained during the history and diagnosis,
the practitioner will then determine the cause of your symptoms. Depending
on the condition, needles will be inserted into specific acupuncture points
on the body. The acupuncturist may use moxa or electrical stimulation
to enhance acupuncture's therapeutic effect.
Depending on the seriousness and the length of your condition, your first
visit may take between 30-60 minutes. It may take several visits to see
significant improvement or cure your condition. As with any treatment
plan, however, make sure that your questions are answered completely,
and that the treatment plan seems viable and reasonable. If you don't
understand a particular technique or type of treatment, make sure to ask.