What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture can be defined as the insertion of dry needles into the skin at specific locations called acupuncture points.

Acupuncture is performed by certified practitioners and physicians to treat certain medical disorders. Depending on the training and experience of the practitioner and the problem being treated, acupuncture techniques may include electrical current through the needles (electro acupuncture) or heat (moxibustion) and pressure (acupressure).

Acupuncture began in China more than 2,000 years ago. It is now practiced throughout the world, particularly in China, Korea, and Japan. In the United States, acupuncture started gaining popularity in the early 1970′s.

How does acupuncture work?

Doctor performing acupunctureThe basic idea behind acupuncture, according to ancient theory, is that energy flows within the human body and can be stimulated to create balance and health. The energy flow (or vital force)–called qi and pronounced “chee”–moves throughout the body along twelve main channels, known as meridians. These meridians represent the major organs and functions of the body although they do not follow the exact pathways of nerves or blood flow.

The goal of acupuncture is to correct imbalances of flow and restore health through stimulation of the meridians. Generally the practitioner inserts the needles through the skin at points along the meridians of the body. Current acupuncture information lists up to 400 different acupuncture points for various health problems.

Scientists have attempted to explain the actual physical effects of acupuncture on the human body. Some researchers suggest that pain relief happens when acupuncture needles stimulate nerves. Another well accepted theory is that acupuncture releases pain relieving chemicals, such as endorphin and serotonin. Acupuncture may also be effective because it targets painful tender points, sometimes called trigger points. Additionally, acupuncture may decrease pain-causing inflammation by stimulating the body’s pituitary gland to release cortisol, a hormone that is known to reduce inflammation. Although the exact manner in which acupuncture works is unknown, the treatment appears helpful for certain medical conditions.

What does acupuncture treat?

A number of conditions are commonly treated with acupuncture, such as the following:

  • chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • tennis elbow
  • myofascial pain
  • low back pain
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • stroke rehabilitation
  • menstrual cramps
  • postoperative dental pain
  • fibromyalgia
  • osteoarthritis
  • neck pain
  • addiction
  • headache
  • asthma

What happens in a typical acupuncture session?

Some acupuncturists may ask about the patient’s diet to evaluate his or her nutritional well-being and may recommend changes, possibly including herbal supplements. At each appointment, the acupuncturist reassesses the progress and makes changes if needed. Following each evaluation, the acupuncturist inserts needles at specific points related to the patient’s complaints. Needle insertion causes very little pain; some patients describe a pinching, grabbing, or tingling sensation. The needles are sterile and disposable and are not reused on other patients. This decreases the risk of spreading disease from patient to patient. The needles are removed at the end of the session. Depending on the practitioner’s skill and the condition being treated, other forms of acupuncture could also be used, such as moxibustion (acupuncture with heat) and acupressure techniques. Not everyone responds to acupuncture…it is reasonable to try two to three sessions. If there is a good response, you may want to continue; if there is minimal or no response, acupuncture may not help you at this time.