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Acupuncture is the practice of puncturing the skin with needles at certain anatomical points in the body to relieve specific symptoms associated with many diseases. The anatomical points (acupuncture points) are thought to have certain electrical properties, which affect chemical neurotransmitters in the body.
Acupuncture is one of the oldest, most commonly used medical practices in the world. Originating in China more than 2,500 years ago, acupuncture gained attention in this country in the 1970s, when China and the US opened relations. The practice has been growing in popularity since.
According to theories of traditional Chinese medicine, the human body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points connected via pathways, or meridians. These pathways create an energy flow (Qi, pronounced "chee") through the body that is responsible for overall health. Disruption of the energy flow can cause disease. Acupuncture may correct these imbalances when applied at acupuncture points and improve the flow of Qi.
Acupuncture theories today are based on extensive laboratory research, and have become widely known and accepted. In addition, controlled studies have shown evidence of the effectiveness of acupuncture for certain conditions. At present in the United States, about 3,500 physicians and 11,000 to 12,000 non-physician acupuncturists use this medical art. About 40 acupuncture schools train non-physicians and about 500 to 600 physicians, according to the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture.
More than 3.2 million Americans have used acupuncture, and the numbers are growing, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
Acupuncture is not for everyone. If you choose to see an acupuncturist, discuss it with your physician first and find a practitioner who is licensed as having appropriate training and credentials.
Acupuncture is generally performed with metallic, solid, and hair-thin needles. Patients report different feelings associated with acupuncture, but most feel minimal pain as the needle is inserted. Acupuncture makes some people report feeling energized by the treatment, while others say they feel relaxed.
Improper placement of the acupuncture needle can cause soreness and pain during treatment. That is why it is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles just as it does other medical devices under good manufacturing practices and single-use standards of sterility.
Instead of needles, other forms of stimulation are sometimes used, including:
Many studies have documented acupuncture's effects on the body, but none has fully explained how acupuncture works within the framework of Western medicine. Researchers have proposed several processes to explain acupuncture's effects, primarily on pain.
In general, acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system, which, in turn, releases chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals either alter the experience of pain or release other chemicals that influence the body's self-regulating systems. These biochemical changes may stimulate the body's natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well-being.
Attention has been focused on the following theories to further explain how acupuncture affects the body:
Clinical studies presented by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment for nausea caused by surgical anesthesia and cancer chemotherapy, as well as for dental pain after surgery.
The NIH also has found that acupuncture is useful by itself, or in combination with conventional therapies, to treat addiction, headaches, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma, and to assist in stroke rehabilitation.
Many Americans seek acupuncture treatment for relief of chronic pain, such as arthritis or low back pain. Acupuncture, however, has expanded uses in other parts of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists conditions that may benefit from acupuncture. However, before considering acupuncture, consult your physician to discuss your current medical conditions, symptoms, and treatment options. Conditions that benefit from acupuncture include the following:
Muscle pain and weakness
Neurogenic bladder dysfunction
Blood pressure regulation
Immune system tonification
Because scientific studies have not fully explained how acupuncture works within the framework of Western medicine, acupuncture remains a source of controversy in the medical world. It is important, therefore, to take the precautionary steps listed below: