Acupuncture is a component of a traditional Oriental system of medicine, which includes an entire philosophy of health and a range of effective therapies. Originating in China over 5,000 years ago, it is based on the philosophy that our health is determined by the flow of life energy or chi. When this chi flow is in balance, our bodies have the energies needed to maintain health. Imbalances in energy flow result in ill health, just as good circulation is important in any of the systems of the body.
Chi, also known as qi, flows through the entire body in a specific 24-hour pattern. The influences of your environment and everything you experience, think, and feel affect the flow of energy. When the flow of chi is disrupted, physical symptoms can manifest. When the chi energy is flowing unobstructed and the organs are strong and functional, there is a sense of balance and vitality.
In Chinese, the word for acupuncture means "needles and fire" - referring to the traditional application of fine needles and heat treatment (moxibustion) to specific bioelectrically-charged points on the body. According to acupuncture theory, the chi circulates in the body along 14 major energy pathways, also called meridians. These pathways are each linked to specific body organs and physical and psychological functions. In our bodies, there are over 2,000 points that can be stimulated with acupuncture to enhance the flow of chi. Acupuncture is commonly used in conjunction with other traditional oriental medicine (TOM) therapies, which include herbal remedies, dietary therapies and qigong.
How Acupuncture Works
Acupuncture works by stimulating the flow of chi, or energy, within the body. The practitioner uses a number of approaches to reach a diagnosis:
* Observation A skilled acupuncturist will look for visual cues to your energy level and general state of health, reflected in your posture, your muscle tone, coloring, and other individual characteristics. Tongue diagnosis is also an important part of the exam. The practitioner will note the color and texture of the tongue and the possible presence of any coating. For example, a tongue that is particularly pale may lead to a diagnosis of anemia - termed "deficient blood" in Chinese medicine.
* Case history The acupuncturist will take a history somewhat like that of a Western physician, although the events will be considered in the context of TOM - and a different emphasis may be placed on the information. The practitioner will also listen to the quality of vital energy (chi) in a person's voice and in their breathing.
* Reading the pulse Acupuncture theory identifies more than one pulse point and correlates the pulses with the functioning of different organ systems in the body. The pulses are read to determine the vitality of the various organ system. This information is taken at each visit and compared with records of earlier pulses to indicate whether progress is being made and what problems remain.
Acupuncture treatment typically involves the insertion of fine needles, as thin as a single strand of hair. The needles are placed at specific key points and at specific depths along the meridian pathways to affect the flow of energy. Some researchers suggest that the chi is measurable bioelectrical current; others consider it a reflection of the life force, a more subtle and complex phenomena. Acupuncture points can also be stimulated using acupressure, heat therapy (moxibustion), magnets, and electrical and laser devices.
The needles are relatively painless and the energy flow they ignite within the body often produce a profound sense of relaxation, even euphoria. Even people who don't like getting shots discover that they don't mind acupuncture. In addition to acupuncture needling, other therapies such as herbal remedies and beneficial foods may be suggested, depending on the patient and the condition.
In general, the benefits of acupuncture are cumulative and treatments are given as a series. Symptoms don't usually disappear in just one treatment. Chronic conditions may require a series of acupuncture treatments in combination with other therapies. A general program, for example, can be a series that includes 8 to 12 treatments.
Uses of Acupuncture
The World Health Organization has cited over 100 different conditions treatable by acupuncture. These conditions include everything from addictions and arthritis to mental disorders and pain.
* Treatment of addictions Acupuncture's ability to stimulate the release of endorphins may be one of the reasons it works so well in the treatment of addictions. Researchers have confirmed the value of this therapy for long-standing addictive problems with alcohol, nicotine, and drugs, even for complex concerns such as the use of cocaine and heroin. In studies where researchers followed up with patients a year later, the benefits appear to be sustained -- often for more than half of those who were treated. In the U.S. today, there are about 300 acupuncture-based substance abuse programs, and the number is growing.
* Pain relief Acupuncture has been found to enhance the release of endorphins, biochemicals produced in the brain, that reduce pain and increase one's sense of well-being. Research has documented the positive effects of acupuncture for a wide range of pain conditions, including headache and migraine, facial and dental pain, neck and low back pain, sciatica, tennis elbow, and athletic injuries, as well as osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and post-operative pain.
* Enhancing immune function It is said that one fourth of all long-term AIDS survivors use acupuncture. This does not mean that acupuncture is a cure, but rather that it can be an important complementary therapy in a program to support the immune system. Integrative treatment includes physician monitoring, prescription medication (combination therapy), and individualized programs in nutritional therapy, vitamins, herbal supplements, and sometimes qigong.
* Treatment of degenerative conditions Researchers have found acupuncture to be helpful in restoring function following a stroke, especially if the therapy is initiated within one to three months after the incident. However, it cannot undo damage if more than half the central nervous system has been affected. Acupuncture can also be beneficial in cases of peripheral nerve injury and Bell's palsy.
* Treatment of chronic illness Acupuncture is viable in the treatment of many chronic conditions. The World Health Organization suggests that acupuncture can be effective for conditions such as:
- anxiety, depression, stress, or tension
- allergies and asthma; colds, flu, and bronchitis
- ear, nose, and throat disorders; sinus infections
- digestive disorders and bladder conditions
- constipation, diarrhea
- chronic fatigue
- dizziness, numbness, poor circulation
- high blood pressure
- male impotence and female infertility; herpes
- morning sickness (chronic) or motion sickness
- premenstrual syndrome and other women's health issues
- skin problems
- weight gain or loss
Benefits of Acupuncture
Acupuncture, a complete system of healing, can restore vitality and robust health by balancing the flow of chi throughout the body. Benefits include alleviation of pain and increased immune response.
For those with chronic pain conditions, acupuncture has proven to be a very successful treatment since it promotes the release of endorphins, the body's natural pain-killing chemicals.
Results of studies have shown that when acupuncture is included in treatment programs of chronic alcoholics, the percentage of successful completions significantly increased.
For those suffering from mental disorders such as depression and insomnia, acupuncture acts like a tranquilizer, often providing relief.
The Role of Acupuncture in Prevention
Because of acupuncture's beneficial role in building and maintaining the body's immune system, it is an excellent preventive treatment. A growing number of people schedule acupuncture treatments on a regular basis simply to maintain a balanced flow of chi in the body.
Acupuncture is a skill that is developed through years of training and experience. It's important to find a qualified practitioner in your area.
Ask the practitioner in advance whether he or she uses sterile, disposable needles. This is essential because both HIV infection and hepatitis can be spread by reuse of needles.
It is helpful to see someone with whom you have good communication. This is not necessarily a matter of culture - more often it's personality. Occasionally at the beginning of the treatment, the needles will cause discomfort. It is important that you feel comfortable to tell your practitioner what you're experiencing, so the needles or the electro-stimulation can be adjusted to your comfort level.
If you have an addiction, a life-threatening condition, or a major chronic illness, be sure to consult a physician.
Locating a Practitioner
* American Association of Oriental Medicine (AAOM), Catasauqua, PA, (610) 433-2448 and (610) 266-1433. The AAOM provides public information on the location of acupuncturists in all parts of the country.
* National Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance (NAOMA), Olalla, WA, (253) 851-6896. The National Alliance provides information on the location of practitioners of acupuncture and Oriental medicine nationwide in the U.S.
Specialized Treatment Programs
* The AIDS and Chinese Medicine Institute, San Francisco, CA, (415) 861-4964.
* The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA), Vancouver WA, (360) 254-0186. This method of detoxification is currently used in more than 1,000 comprehensive addiction programs. The association has information on the location of provider clinics across the country. NADA also offers a free catalog of literature and information resources.
* National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pain Research Center - Complementary Medicine Program, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, (410) 448-6871. The Center provides research and information for both patients and physicians on the treatment of chronic pain and arthritis. The integrative medicine clinic offers services that include acupuncture and can be reached at (410) 448-6361.
* The Quan Yin Healing Arts Center, San Francisco, CA, (415) 861-4964.
This non-profit integrative medicine clinic specializes in providing affordable acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage, qigong, and nursing services, with a focus on chronic health issues, HIV, hepatitis C, cancer support, stroke, brain injury, addictions, asthma programs, and general health.
- Acupuncture Efficacy: A Compendium of Controlled Clinical Studies by Stephen Birch and Richard Hammerschlag, National Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, Tarrytown, NY. Order at: (914) 332-4576.
- Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold, Ballantine Books (1991). The definitive guide to Chinese medicine.
- Chinese Medicine by Dr. Duo Gao and Barbara Bernie, Thunder's Mouth Press (1997).
- The Complete Illustrated Guide to Chinese Medicine by T. Williams, Element Books (1996).
- Fighting Drug Abuse with Acupuncture: The Treatment that Works by Ellinor Mitchell, Pacific View Press (1995).
- The HIV Wellness Sourcebook by Misha Cohen, Henry Holt (1998).
- Staying Healthy with the Seasons by Elson Haas, M.D., Celestial Arts Press (1999, 20th printing). A classic, relating the seasonal philosophy of Chinese medicine to Western lifestyle.
- Transformation and Recovery by Alex Brumbaugh, Stillpoint Press (1995). Sound information on acupuncture detoxification for professionals and the interested public.
- Voices of qi by Alex Holland, Group West (1999). A clear brief overview of Chinese medicine.
- The Web Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine by Ted Kaptchuk, Congdon and Weed (1992). Another classic.
- Who Can Ride The Dragon, An Exploration of the Cultural Roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine by Zhang Yu Huan and Ken Rose, Paradigm Publications (1999).