Acupuncture’s popularity has been increasing, and it’s now considered a viable treatment for a host of conditions. However, despite the popularity of acupuncture, many people don’t know how it’s performed or why it works. This practice, which involves the insertion of thin, sterile needles into specific locations, has been around for hundreds upon hundreds of years, although it has undergone a few changes.

Acupuncture is based on ancient beliefs surrounding the body’s life energy.

Traditional Chinese medicine proposes that the life energy, or qi (pronounced chi), flows through meridians in the body. Meridians are like pathways or channels, and the qi in each meridian affects a certain part of the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, pain, illness, and disease occur when the flow of qi is interrupted or unbalanced.

The needles are inserted at specific points along the meridians to restore balance to the qi. These acupuncture points were first described in The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, published during the Ming dynasty from 1368 to 1644. The acupuncture points were further established in bronze statues produced during the 15th century in China. These statues showed the same acupuncture points discussed in The Great Compendium.

Acupuncture in China declined in popularity after the 17th century, even spending a little over a century being banned. Traditional forms of Chinese medicine were reinstated when the communist government was installed, however. Then, in 1971, a U.S. reporter underwent an emergency appendectomy while in China. After he got back to the United States, he wrote a story about the effectiveness as acupuncture for post-operation pain relief, inspiring teams of U.S. scientists to study acupuncture.

Modern science has not only proven that acupuncture can indeed be effective for several different conditions, but it’s provided an explanation for why it’s effective.

The concept of meridians and qi has not been proven and has been rejected by many modern scientists. Instead, modern Western societies believe that acupuncture’s efficacy can be explained by the nerves. Acupuncture points are thought to be spots on the body where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. This increases blood flow while triggering the release of the body’s natural painkillers. Other modern theories suggest that the acupuncture needles trigger a response from the immune system, thereby rousing the body’s natural defenses.

Studies have been done on acupuncture’s ability to treat different conditions. Some, such as hot flashes during menopause, don’t respond at all to acupuncture. However, a lot have been shown to benefit from acupuncture treatments. “Battlefield acupuncture” is even taught to physicians by the U.S. Air Force before deployment. Indeed, acupuncture is now making its way into veterinary medicine, too; a horse with an infected ankle recently benefited from complementary acupuncture treatment.

For people who aren’t treating soldiers in the battlefield or animals at the vet’s office, some of the conditions that respond particularly well to acupuncture include:

Save for a few minor changes, acupuncture is performed in the much the same way as it has been for the last thousand years.

The same acupuncture points are used today as the ones established by The Great Compendium during the Ming dynasty and by bronze statues during the 15th centuries. The needles used in the past were made of materials like stone or bone. Some were even crafted from gold or silver.

Today almost all acupuncture needles are stainless steel filament needles. They come in sterile packaging and are thrown away after each use.

Each acupuncture therapist is unique, but there are a few consistencies between all of them.

During the first visit, the acupuncturist will do a thorough assessment. This will include questions about symptoms, lifestyle, or other medical conditions. It may also include examination of painful body parts, studying of the individual’s pulse, and consideration of the face and tongue’s coloring.

When the needles are inserted, it’s unlikely that there will be much discomfort, because of the extremely thin nature of acupuncture needles. However, it is possible to experience a deep, aching sensation once the needles reach the correct depth. The acupuncture therapist might gently manipulate the needles after insertion, too. Sometimes heat or electrical impulses are applied through the needles, as well.

The needles will remain in place for ten to 30 minutes. There is usually no pain – indeed, very little sensation at all – when the needles are removed. The used needles should then be thrown away. Typical acupuncture therapies are comprised of several treatments spread out over several weeks or a few months.

Acupuncture has a relatively small set of risks.

There are some people who have a higher risk of negative side effects from acupuncture. Those with bleeding disorders or who take blood thinners should probably avoid acupuncture – or, at the very least, discuss it in-depth with a physician before pursuing acupuncture treatment. Additionally, some types of acupuncture can interfere with implanted devices, such as pacemakers, or induce early labor in pregnant women. For people with these conditions, it’s a good idea to talk with a physician, as well as discuss all health concerns with the acupuncture therapist before being treated.

The other risks associated with acupuncture are extremely rare when working with an experienced, reputable acupuncture therapist. For instance, if a needle is pushed in too deeply, it can cause organ damage. Additionally, the risk of infection is extremely low if the acupuncturist uses sterile, disposable needles.

To find a good acupuncture therapist, start by asking questions. Ask friends or family who have had good acupuncture experiences, or ask a trusted physician. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) also maintains a searchable database of certified acupuncturists. After finding a few potential acupuncture therapists, look for online reviews to make sure he or she is the right fit.

Have you ever had an acupuncture treatment?

Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

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