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Acupuncture is system of complementary medicine in which fine needles are inserted in the skin at specific points along what are considered to be lines of energy (meridians) and is used in the treatment of various physical and mental conditions.

Acupuncture alleviates pain and can increase immune response by balancing the flow of vital life energy throughout the body. It is a complete system of healing and provides effective treatment for numerous conditions, from the common cold and flus to addiction and chronic fatigue syndrome. It is also effective as an adjunctive treatment for AIDS.


Acupuncture is promoted as a treatment for pain - and there is absolutely no question that it does in fact provide short-term benefit for many of the people who try it. By some estimates, between 50 and 70 per cent of patients with chronic pain receive at least temporary relief when treatment with acupuncture, and some experience long-term relief as well. However, doctors are still debating whether this type of therapy has any effect beyond that of a placebo (a fake treatment with no real activity). It is a difficult question to resolve because most placebos are actually quite potent. Dummy pills typically achieve a relief rate of 30 to 35 per cent, and a sham procedure, accompanied by suitably impressive instruments and rituals, can be effective more than 50 per cent of the time. Indeed, in tests comparing genuine acupuncture with an imitation, patients receiving the fake treatment usually enjoy just about as much relief (50 per cent) as those given the real thing. Of course, if your only concern is pain relief (as opposed to a cure of the underlying problem), it doesn't really matter whether acupuncture's effects are physical or merely psychological as long as you feel better. And there is, in any event, mounting proof of acupuncture's genuine value. According to an expert consensus, well-performed scientific studies have provided evidence of acupuncture's efficacy in relieving pain after dental surgery and in reducing the nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy ('morning sickness'), chemotherapy and anesthesia. Other research suggests that acupuncture may be useful - along with other, more conventional therapies - for asthma, osteoarthritis, low back pain, headache (both tension and migraine), menstrual cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia and other conditions that cause chronic pain. Two other intriguing areas are currently under research. One is the use of acupuncture in easing withdrawal from addiction to hard drugs and alcohol; acupuncture, especially of the outer ear, is in use at many detoxification clinics in the United States. (Similar results have not been observed for tobacco addiction, however). Another possibility is that acupuncture therapy may speed rehabilitation and limit damage after a paralyzing stroke.

Procedure for Treatment

The 'puncture' in acupuncture refers to insertion of tiny needles at certain very specific points on the surface of the body. The treatments vary widely, depending on the individual practitioner and the style of acupuncture. There are several 'schools', including Chinese, Korean, Japanese and a Westernized version (based on neurology, not Oriented medical philosophy) called trigger-point therapy. Most practitioners of Oriental- style acupuncture perform at least a partial physical examination at the first visit (including extensive pulse-taking and, possibly, examination of the tongue and palpation of the abdomen). They also tend to take a very detailed medical history, including nutritional habits and other environmental factors. The actual insertion of the hair-thin, disposable needles has been described as feeling like a mosquito bite. After insertion, the needles may be stimulated by twirling them or connecting them to a mild electrical current (there is no risk of electrical shock). This stimulation may cause a mild tingling or aching sensation referred to as de qi. The needles may be inserted from a fraction of an inch up to about one inch deep. They can either be withdrawn a few seconds after insertion or kept in place for up to 30 minutes.

Treatment Time: Typically, you should allow 20 minutes to 1 hour per session. The initial visit may take longer.
Treatment Frequency: This varies according to the problem. You may start out with several treatments per week, then taper to weekly or less often. Duration of therapy may range from a few treatments for acute, temporary problems to regularly scheduled treatments over several months for chronic conditions.


Acupuncture has been practiced in China for several thousand years, although this traditional healing art didn't catch Americans' interest until the early 1970s, when a Western reporter in Beijing received acupuncture for postoperative pain (after undergoing an appendectomy under conventional general anesthesia). How acupuncture works remains a mystery. According to ancient Chinese medical theory, the life force (called qi or ch'i and pronounced 'chee') flows through the body via 14 invisible channels (called meridians), regulating all physical and mental processes. Opposing forces within the body, called yin and yang, must be balanced to keep ch'i flowing properly. The meridians supposedly run deep within the body's tissues and organs, surfacing at some 360 places identified as acupuncture points, sometimes called acupoints. Certain meridians are identified with organs such as the bladder or liver, and the points all along such meridians - even in the hands or feet - are believed capable of affecting the associated internal organs. Stimulating these points is said to balance and restore the flow of ch'i. An explanation proposed by Western scientists is that acupuncture may trigger the release of natural pain-killing substances within the body called endorphins, thus blunting the perception of pain. It may also alter the body's output of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, and of inflammation-causing substances such as prostaglandins. Like the manipulation of ch'i, however, this explanation has yet to be conclusively documented. Whatever the cause may be, the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture seem to have a delayed onset; they increase slowly, even after removal of the needles, and may become more evident after several treatments. The effects may diminish after acupuncture treatments are ended.

Who Should Avoid This Therapy?

In general, there are no medical conditions that rule out the use of acupuncture except, perhaps, a morbid fear of needles. People at risk of easy bruising or excessive bleeding (for example, patients with clotting disorders and those taking a blood-thinning medication) would be prudent to avoid acupuncture, since there is a slight risk of damage to blood vessels. Pregnant women should avoid needle insertion on or near the abdomen.


Acupuncture has no inherent side-effects. However, careless application of the technique can present certain hazards. There have been documented cases of hepatitis B transmission and serious bacterial infection due to improperly sterilized needles, a problem that has been controlled by the widespread use of disposable needles. Improperly performed acupuncture can also cause bleeding (if a blood vessel is punctured) or injury to organs, nerves or tissue, making it important to consult a skilled and reputable practitioner.