Friday, April 4, 2008

Accupuncture: The Mystery of the Needles

An introduction to this age-old therapy

Last year Americans made more than 12 million visits to acupuncturists for problems ranging from sore backs and nausea to cancer and drug addiction. While 30 years ago you might have had to board an overseas flight to find an experienced acupuncturist, today there are some 10,000 practitioners in the U.S., nearly 5,500 of them with state licenses. Of all the alternative therapies in the U.S., this ancient Chinese medical treatment is unquestionably the one creating the biggest buzz.

So what, exactly, is acupuncture? Broadly speaking, a system of diagnosis and treatment that aims to restore health by stimulating key points in the body with ultra-fine needles. Increasingly, people are turning to acupuncture as a complementary treatment, one part of a healing approach that's drawn from a variety of medical disciplines.

Acupuncture, which could date back as far as 5,000 years, is the Latin name for what the Chinese call Chen Chiu. (The Latin word acus means needle, and pungere means puncture.) According to traditional Chinese medicine, qi (pronounced "chee"), the body's life force or energy, circulates through 14 meridians, or channels. The ebb and flow of qi determine one's health, as does the balance of yin and yang, the two opposing forces that produce resilient health and vitality when in equilibrium. If the flow of qi is blocked, yin and yang become unbalanced and illness may result. (Poor diet, stress, and exhaustion affect the qi flow.)
Acupuncture restores balance by rechanneling qi — stimulating any of the more than 360 acupoints connected to organs or systems in the body. "Health exists when adequate qi can flow smoothly," says acupuncturist Harriet Beinfield. "Depletion leads to illness and lethargy. Congestion leads to aches and tenderness."

Since meridians, qi, and, for that matter, yin and yang are invisible, many Americans have difficulty accepting their existence. But scientists who have studied acupuncture's effects have developed a theory on how it works connected to endorphin release.

Meridians could be the nerves connected to our major muscles, say the scientists. When acupuncture points are stimulated, it changes the flow of bioelectrical energy along the nerves and releases neurotransmitters, primarily endorphins, which are the body's pain relievers, the same chemicals that produce a sense of relaxation and well-being — the "runner's high." A Swedish study showed that the brain's endorphin levels had doubled a half hour after acupuncture.

In fact, some researchers believe acupuncture helps people fight drug addiction by releasing endorphins into the system, thus calming the patients and allowing them to work on their problems in a reasonable state.

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