Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese system of health care. It aims to prevent and cure specific diseases and conditions by sticking very fine, solid needles into points of the body.

Does the medical field approve of acupuncture?

Yes. There are more than 16,000 licensed acupuncturists in the United States and 3,000 physicians who perform acupuncture as part of their medical practice. The World Health Organization currently recognizes more than 40 medical problems –including pain, gastrointestinal, gynecological, and respiratory conditions, as well as sports injuries – that can be helped by acupuncture treatment.

In addition, in 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug administration (FDA) reclassified acupuncture needles, regulating them as it does other medical devices. Acupuncture needles must now be manufactured according to single-use standards of sterility and are intended for general use by qualified practitioners.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture stimulates the body’s ability to resist or overcome illnesses and conditions by correcting imbalances. Acupuncture also prompts the body to produce chemicals that decrease or eliminate painful sensations.

There are hundreds of acupuncture points (called acu-points) along the body’s 14 major meridians (energy-carrying channels). Sixteenth-century Chinese doctors used the term “Qi” (pronounced “chee”) to describe the energy that flows through meridians. The belief is that illness is caused by a disruption of Qi, which leads to an imbalance of energy. Acupuncture can correct this energy disruption.

There are many theories as to how acupuncture actually works. When acupuncture points are stimulated, it causes a dull ache or other sensations in the muscle. One theory holds that:

  • The stimulated muscle and sensory neurons send a message to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord);
  • This causes the release of endorphins (naturally produced pain killers) and other neurotransmitters (body chemicals that modify nerve impulses);
  • This, in turn, helps block the message of pain from being delivered to the brain (and has other regulatory effects as well).

Other experts believe that acupuncture works by transmitting signals via the fascia. Fascia is like a thin sheath that surrounds all of the body’s muscles. Some acupuncturists consider the meridians to represent myofascial chains, which helps explain why stimulating an acupuncture point in the lower leg can affect the back or other areas. Interestingly, research shows that acupuncture points have a lower electrical resistivity than surrounding areas. In a practical sense, the meridian system provides a navigable energetic map of the body for acupuncturists to locate and treat many conditions.

What conditions are treated with acupuncture?

Although acupuncture is not a “cure-all” treatment, it is very effective in treating several diseases and conditions. Acupuncture is most effective at treating chronic (long-term) pain, such as headaches, menstrual cramps, and low back, neck, or muscle pain. It can also be used to treat osteoarthritis, facial pain, spastic colon, and repetitive strain conditions. Acupuncture also can improve the functioning of the immune system (the body’s defense system against diseases).

For certain conditions, such as cancer, acupuncture should be performed in combination with other treatments.

What are the types of acupuncture?

There are many different styles of acupuncture. Practitioners of Acupuncture Physical Medicine (APM) palpate the body (examine the body by touch) to locate reactive areas and myofascial (muscular) constrictions (tightening). Points are selected and stimulated to relieve symptomatic or problem areas, based on the relationships of meridian acupuncture theory.

Practitioners trained in APM also locate and deactivate “trigger points” using an advanced needling technique. Trigger points are extremely common in pain conditions and cause referred pain and other symptoms of dysfunction in nearly everyone’s life at one time or another.

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