The word acupuncture comes from the Latin acus, for 'needle', and puntura, 'to puncture' This ancient Chinese therapy has been continuously refined over its 4,500 year history.
Legend has it that acupuncture found its beginnings in the experience of an ancient soldier who, when struck by an arrow during battle, noted sensations of numbness far removed from the site of the wound.
Millions of people have used acupuncture for a variety of health conditions. The treatment is often used in conjunction with more conventional methods and has gained wide acceptance. American acupuncture incorporates a variety of approaches to diagnosis and treatment that use medical traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries. Many scientific studies have confirmed its effectiveness. The most studied mechanism is the stimulation of acupuncture points using needles, which are manipulated manually or with electrical stimulation. Other stimulation techniques including pressure, heat, lasers, and moxibustion (the burning of an herb at or near certain sites on the body), are also used, but have not been the subject of many research studies. The World Health Organization lists more than 40 conditions for which acupuncture may be indicated. These include prevention and treatment of nausea, pain relief, treatment of addictions to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, treatment of lung (pulmonary) problems such as asthma, and rehabilitation from damage to the nervous system such as that caused by a stroke.
Acupuncture has been used successfully in the treatment of pain following surgery, and in painful conditions of the muscles and skeleton. These include low back pain, tennis elbow (epicondylitis), and a chronic inflammation of a muscle (fibromyositis). Studies have shown that acupuncture stimulates the release of the body's natural pain-killing chemicals, called endorphins, which are very effective in blocking pain. In animals, transferring the fluid bathing the brain and spinal chord (cerebrospinal) from an animal receiving acupuncture to another animal who is not, produces pain relief (analgesia) in the recipient animal. In other controlled laboratory studies on people, acupuncture has been shown to be more effective than a placebo. In a number of pain-related conditions, acupuncture may be used along with other therapies. These include headache, menstrual cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma.
Several studies have demonstrated that nausea caused by pregnancy, surgical anesthesia, or chemotherapy treatment for cancer, is very responsive to acupuncture.
When acupuncture was used as part of a treatment program for substance abuse, recipients had reduced cravings and improved psychological conditions. Symptoms of withdrawal were less severe. In the treatment of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), acupuncture used with Chinese herbs has been helpful in improving the functioning of the patient's immune system, and has reduced the severity of digestive problems, fatigue, and other symptoms.
Acupuncturists also cite success in treating a range of health problems including both acute and chronic illnesses. Looking at the human body as a unity of body, mind, and spirit, it is thought that those with physical problems reflect problems on the emotional or spiritual levels as well. If underlying factors are not detected and treated, symptoms will persist and/or problems in other areas may develop.
Acupuncture treatment for sudden injuries, such as sprained ankles or other muscle, ligament, or tendon misalignments, is said to be most effective when treatment is received before "sleeping on it." Acupuncture is thought to restore the body to its original form or "memory" for these and chronic illnesses.
The procedure involves the insertion of fine needles, made of stainless steel, gold, or other metals, into specific points along the meridians of the body. The needles can be heated, attached to a mild electric current, or twirled continuously with the hand. Some needles are left in place for only a few minutes, while others remain for days. Pain during treatment should be minimal. There may be a slight pricking sensation when a needle is inserted but this does not last long. If there is some discomfort, it can be relieved by a slight change in the position of the needle.
The number of treatments and the points chosen for a treatment depend on the patient and the skills of the practitioner. Since Chinese medicine treats the whole patient, not just the condition, each treatment is individualized.
There are instances where more traditional Western medicine is the treatment of choice, including life threatening infection, severe trauma, or the need for surgical procedures, such as open heart surgery. In China, this understanding has led to the practice of both systems side by side, with the strengths of each system complementing the weaknesses of the other. Acupuncture used in conjunction with Western procedures can speed the recovery and rebalancing of the individual. In China, acupuncture is routinely used for anesthesia in some types of major surgical procedures.
Caution is advised for the use of electrical acupuncture in patients with cardiac pacemakers. The United States Food and Drug Administration regulates acupuncture needles along with other medical devices such as surgical scalpels and hypodermic syringes, requiring good manufacturing practices and single-use standards of sterility. Needle insertion is considered an invasive procedure. Most states require an adequately trained physician or a certified acupuncturist to perform and/or supervise the procedure. Although the American Association of Medical Colleges reports that no medical school in the United States provides acupuncture training, some chiropractic schools have elective 200 hour programs. The American Holistic Medical Association has developed a 300 hour program for physicians, although some experts in the field feel that these programs do not allow for full mastery of the materials and skills involved. Several programs located throughout the country offer rigorous comprehensive preparation that may take as long as 36 months and include a clinical residency, with 500 hours of supervised clinical work before licensure is granted. As of 1998, non-physician acupunturists, including dentists, podiatrists, and chiropractors, were licensed, registered, or certified in 34 states plus the District of Columbia. The National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists offers a competency test that is used in some states. Since not all states regulate the profession, checking on credentials is important.
Before the first treatment, the acupuncturist will obtain a thorough medical history and study the patient carefully. Since a disturbance in qi can be caused by external influence, like cold, excess anger or poor diet, all aspects of the individual are considered. The practitioner will observe the person's tone of voice and body language, as well as discussing many aspects of health, including eating habits, sensitivity to temperature, emotional distress, and urine color. The focus of treatment is on balancing the qi energy in the body.
Since acupuncture treatment is individualized to each patient, care afterwards will depend on the condition being treated and the patient's response. The acupuncturist may recommend changes in diet, exercise, and lifestyle to improve the patient's condition.
Serious side effects are unusual, but localized congestion is frequently reported after needle insertion. Less commonly reported adverse effects may include fainting, black and blue marks (hematoma formation), and a collapsed lung.
One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of negative side effects is lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures that can be used as treatment for the same conditions.
Chi - Pronounced chee, and also known as Qi, in Chinese medicine, this energy flows through pathways that link together the entire body. The precise location of the acupuncture needle in the body removes obstructions in the energy flow and promotes healthy functioning of the body organs. By cultivating and building the Chi, the body is strengthened, the immune system is stronger, and there is a greater sense of well-being.
Meridians - According to the Chinese, a network of pathways running throughout the body, carrying energy from organ to organ, and connecting every cell of the body.
Moxibustion - A component of traditional Chinese medicine that involves the burning of an herb at or near certain sites on the body.
Placebo - An inactive substance used as a test in controlled experiments.