What is acupuncture?

The term acupuncture is used to describe a number of therapeutic procedures that involve the stimulation of specific points on the body to relieve pain or treat medical conditions. Therapists typically insert thin, solid metallic needles or needles attached to electrodes at points on the body that correspond with the treatment of your condition.

According to the tenets of Chinese medicine, applying pressure to specific points on the body can help relieve medical conditions and illnesses by rebalancing the body's energies.

Western medicine, however, contends that acupuncture likely works by stimulating the nervous system, releasing chemicals and hormones that relieve pain and other conditions.

While mystery surrounds the ways this treatment works, the effects are well-documented.

The National Institutes of Health says acupuncture has been shown effective in the treatment of postoperative and chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.

It also says acupuncture is also effective in treating postoperative dental pain and as a complementary therapy in the treatment of addiction, headache, menstrual cramps, stroke rehabilitation, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Anecdotal evidence reveals that this treatment can help with a number of other conditions, so your physician or other health care provider may recommend acupuncture for a condition not listed here.


body meridian

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncturists target a network of channels throughout the body called meridians, which provide energy to the brain and major organs. If the meridians are blocked by things like stress, fatigue, poor diet, disease or even environmental conditions, energy cannot flow through the channels to reach our brain or organs.

As a result, the body doesn’t maintain the balance it needs to heal or remain healthy.

Acupuncturists release the energy by inserting fine, sterile needles into specific sites, also called acupuncture points, along the body’s meridians to restore the body’s natural balance, or "qi."

The practitioner may use several other methods to stimulate the meridian, including moxibustion, which involves burning dried mudwort that has been placed in a cone on the body, and removing it before it reaches the skin. 

Cupping, which attaches suction cups to the skin to stimulate blood flow, is another method practitioners use to release the flow of qi, as are laser therapy, electro-stimulation and massage.

The stimulation can activate pathways affecting various physiological systems in the brain as well as in the periphery.

Your doctor or health care provider may refer or recommend treatment for a variety of conditions in addition to traditional medicine or as a complementary therapy to aid in the efficacy of another treatment (for instance, to treat the nausea and vomiting that accompany chemotherapy treatments for cancer).

Your first acupuncture treatment

You may not receive treatment at all during your first visit to an acupuncture practitioner.

Instead, the practitioner may choose to learn about the condition you're seeking treatment for, your general health condition, lifestyle and any other treatments you're taking and medications you have been prescribed before developing a treatment plan.

When your treatment does begin, the therapist will likey use hair-thin needles to stimulate pressure points, which differ according to the condition for which you're seeking treatment. Don't be surprised if the location of the needles seems random.

The pressure points corresponding to your condition and affected areas are often located in another area of your body.

Most people feel little or no pain when the therapist inserts the acupuncture needles and feel energized or relaxed by the treatment itself.

Find an acupuncture practitioner

While acupuncture is generally considered a safe therapeutic alternative treatment, its success depends greatly upon the acupuncture provider you choose. Almost all complications from the use of this treatment, from soreness and pain during treatment to infections and punctured organs, stem from improper needle use.

Consider the following factors when selecting an acupuncture practitioner:

Get a recommendation from a reputable health care provider and ask about acupuncturists that work within hospitals or clinics.

Check a practitioner's credentials. Most states require a license to practice alternative therapies like acupuncture, but education and training requirements may vary.

Before submitting to treatment, take a look around the facility and ask the provider about credentials and methods of treatment. Look for facilities that are clean and that have been inspected by your local board of health or other certifying body.

Ask to see a demonstration of an acupuncture therapy session in progress, if possible. Do not rely on an acupuncture therapist's diagnosis of disease unless he or she has substantial conventional medical training.

Traditional Chinese medicine

Other popular alternative medicines come from ancient Chinese medicinal techniques. For more than 2,000 years, these practitioners have treated the body by improving energy flow and promoting overall wellness.

Much of these treatments involve improving your "qi" which is described as the vital force that informs and animates all living things and flows along channels or pathways in your body.

READ MORE: Angie's List Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine

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