Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Need for Needles ... What Is Acupuncture all About?

While acupuncture is considered an "alternative" treatment in the United States, it has been used in mainstream medicine in China for thousands of years. The treatment is based on the philosophy that there is a life force or energy called qi (pronounced "chee") that flows through channels in our bodies. Each channel connects to one or several organs that govern bodily functions. It is believed that illness results when the normal flow of qi is disturbed. In acupuncture, thin stainless steel needles are inserted at various points in the body in order to unblock or rebalance the flow of qi.

Qi is clearly not a concept rooted in Western science; however, acupuncture has been clinically shown to be effective for pain relief and for easing the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy or post-surgery. It has also shown potential benefits as part of a treatment plan for a variety of other conditions, including:

  • gastrointestinal disturbances, such as constipation, diarrhea, and spastic colon
  • muscular ailments, such as facial tics and tennis elbow
  • nerve ailments, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and sciatica
  • bone and joint ailments, such as osteoarthritis and tendinitis
  • respiratory ailments, such as asthma and bronchitis
  • female reproductive system ailments, such as irregular periods, menstrual cramps, and menopausal symptoms
  • other conditions, such as addiction, headaches, sinusitis, stroke rehabilitation, and urinary problems

A typical visit to an acupuncturist involves answering questions about your health. The acupuncturist will also want to check your pulse (possibly at several points) and have a close look at your tongue. He or she may note your skin's color and texture, your posture, and other physical characteristics that offer clues to your health. You will then be asked to lie still on a padded examining table while the acupuncturist inserts needles into various points of your body. You may not feel anything—at most you will feel a twitch or a twinge of pain that will quickly subside. Once the needles are in place, the acupuncturist may gently manipulate the needles or will leave you to rest for 30 to 60 minutes. You will probably feel very relaxed, and may even nod off for a bit (this is fine as long as you don't roll over). At the end of the session, the practitioner will quickly and painlessly remove the needles.

To treat certain health conditions, acupuncture may be more effective if the needles are warm. The acupuncturist achieves this by lighting a small bunch of dried mugwort herb and holding it above the needles (the burning herb never touches the body). This technique is called moxibustion. Another way to heat the needles involves attaching electrical wires to the needles and running a weak current through them. You may feel a mild tingling sensation with this method.

The number of acupuncture treatments recommended by your acupuncturist will depend on the nature of your illness and your overall health. For example, you may need just one treatment for a sprained ankle but weekly or bi-weekly treatments over several months for a chronic illness. The first visit usually costs between $60 and $110; follow-up visits run $30 to $80. An increasing number of insurance companies now cover some level of acupuncture treatment.

Acupuncture can be safely combined with prescription drugs and other conventional treatments. It's important, however, for your primary healthcare provider to know about the acupuncture you are receiving in order to monitor the treatment. Some acupuncturists may decline to treat women who are pregnant.

For a list of certified acupuncture practitioners, look on the Web at (or send $3 check or money order to the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, 11 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 300, Alexandria, VA 22314). You can also get a list of physicians in your area who perform acupuncture by calling the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture at 1-800-521-2262.

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