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Introduction to Complementary & Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture is a healing practice that originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. It is a mainstay of traditional Chinese medicine that involves stimulating strategic points on the body, usually using very thin needles. In the United States, acupuncture is considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Numerous studies have shown that acupuncture may help people manage painful conditions such as low back pain, osteoarthritis, migraine, headaches, fibromyalgia, dental pain, and menstrual cramps. Acupuncture also may help with symptoms of nausea, especially nausea that is caused by chemotherapy.

Today, there are many styles and forms of acupuncture, including variations that do not involve needles (acupressure), and medical acupuncture, which is fully integrated with conventional medical therapy.

What is the basis for acupuncture?

All forms of traditional acupuncture are based on a set of common principles. According to these principles, health and disease are a reflection of "qi" in the body — qi (pronounced CHEE) is the "bio-energy" that flows through channels (called meridians) in the body, each of which feeds an essential organ and the muscular structures along the way. These channels surface at various acupuncture points on the body. According to the principles of acupuncture, manipulation of these acupuncture points will "regulate the energy within the channel" to promote a more healthful state. The manipulation of the acupuncture points involves either puncturing the skin with small needles, applying pressure, or burning a small herbal fluff over the skin ("moxibustion").

What is an acupuncture session like?

For an acupuncture treatment, you will first consult with the practitioner who will exmine you and recommend a treatment. You then lie on a treatment table, and the practitioner places a number of very thin needles at various strategic points on your body. There is a slight sharp sensation on needle entry, but the treatments are not otherwise painful. Sessions usually last 30 minutes, including the exam and consultation.

The acupuncture session can use a variety of different size needles. The practitioner may use a needle with a small ball on the end, and simply massage or apply pressure over the designated point on the skin.

Usually an acupuncturist will recommend once or twice weekly sessions for 3 to 12 weeks of treatment.

How does acupuncture work?

There is no correlation of the ancient descriptions of these channels with known anatomic or neurologic structures. However, studies have shown there is a physiologic effect of acupuncture treatments on the body. Needles placed under the skin and in connective tissue do stimulate peripheral nerves, which has a neurophysiologic effect. The best known example of this is the demonstration of release of endorphins (brain chemicals that affect our perception of pain) in response to acupuncture.

What is acupuncture good for?

Clinically, acupuncture has been demonstrated to alleviate pain, and is useful, together with other approaches, to mitigate a wide variety of painful conditions. Examples that have been studied and where acupuncture is shown to be helpful include low back pain, osteoarthritis, migraine, headaches, fibromyalgia, and menstrual cramps. Acupuncture also can help with symptoms of nausea, especially nausea that is caused by chemotherapy. Research into the demonstration of other benefits of acupuncture is ongoing.

According to a U.S. national survey of health in 2002, approximately 8.2 million American adults had ever used acupuncture; 2.1 million people had used acupuncture in the previous year.

Are acupuncturists accredited and licensed?

Licensing of acupuncture varies by state. Some states do not require acupuncturists to have professional training, but most require some form of professional degree, such as OMD (doctor of oriental medicine), MD (medical doctor), DO (osteopathic doctor). Practitioners may also have a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

DO NOT RELY ON THE DIAGNOSIS OF DISEASE proposed by an acupuncture practitioner unless they have substantial conventional medical training (MD or DO). There does not appear to be any basis in medical science for the diagnoses of altered qi, or of imbalances in energy flow in the body. If you have a condition that has not yet been diagnosed, see your doctor!

Does acupuncture really work?

A very different view of acupuncture is found here . Dr. Barrett makes the argument that the many studies of the effects of acupuncture were poorly performed and should be considered scientifically invalid. He suggests that the various effects demonstrated may relate to placebo — that the benefits occur in those who believe that the treatment will work. Perhaps more important, Dr. Barrett points out that the diagnostic methods of practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture are suspect. The principles of acupuncture are based on mysticism and the text of ancient writings, rather than on any theory that is consistent with medical science.

However, even if the ancient principles of acupuncture do not correlate with any medical science, there is a scientifically plausible explanation for observed benefits of acupuncture. Medical doctors have adopted techniques from acupuncture and combine them with conventional medical therapies. For some people, acupuncture may be a useful adjunct to conventional treatments. It may not be effective for all, but there is good reason to believe that the effects of acupuncture are real.