By Chris Woolston, M.S.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy that uses hair-like needles to stimulate specific points on the body. Practically unknown in this country until the early 1970s, acupuncture has become a common alternative treatment for a wide number of illnesses and complaints. A 2007 national health survey found that about 3.2 million Americans had used acupuncture in the previous year.
Even though it's been around for several thousand years, the real effectiveness of acupuncture is unknown. As reported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2009, acupuncture has shown some promise for treating many types of pain, including headaches, backaches, fibromyalgia, and arthritis. But the evidence is conflicting and hard to interpret. Some studies show a benefit, and some don't. To complicate things further, some studies that compare standard acupuncture to "fake" acupuncture -- needles placed in spots that aren't supposed to have any effect on pain -- have found that both work equally well. This suggests that some people feel better after acupuncture mainly because they expect to feel better, not because the needles have healed them.
What does treatment involve?
Before any needles go anywhere, you can expect your acupuncturist to ask about your current health and your medical history, including anything that might have contributed to your current problem. For the actual treatment, you'll sit or lie down as the acupuncturist inserts the needles. It doesn't hurt; after feeling a small prickling sensation, you may notice some numbness and tingling that should last for just a few seconds. Depending on the type of treatment you're receiving, your acupuncturist may apply heat or electricity to the needles or move them around a bit. Some people feel better after just one session, but others have many sessions.
How does it work?
According to Chinese tradition, acupuncture helps balance the energy, or qi, of the body. Some western scientists have speculated that acupuncture could help trigger natural painkillers called endorphins. The psychological effect may be important, too. The needles are dramatic, so patients expect something to happen. For pain and many other conditions, expectations matter.
How safe is it?
As long as an acupuncturist uses sterile needles, acupuncture is completely safe. Some people do report mild bruising after the treatment, though.
How can I find a qualified acupuncturist?
Check out the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture at http://www.medicalacupuncture.org for a list of acupuncturists by state. The web page of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, www.nccaom, lists board-certified acupuncture practitioners.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).. Acupuncture. 2009. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/
Mayo Clinic. Acupuncture. 2009. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/acupuncture/MY00946
Cleveland Clinic. Acupuncture. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/acupuncture/hic_acupuncture.aspx
Last Updated: March 11, 2013
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