As an essential part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been around for thousands of years. But because it is still relatively new to the West, many people have doubts about whether acupuncture actually does anything. Holistic health professionals advocate acupuncture for a variety of ailments, but it has yet to cross into the mainstream, and many non-holistic doctors still view this practice with skepticism. The situation is not helped by the fact that very little scientific research into acupuncture has been done.
The ideas behind acupuncture
In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture was used to bring balance to the competing energies within the body. Chinese philosophy proposed that two opposing types of energy, yin and yang, constantly flowed through the body and needed to be kept in a state of balance. Acupuncture supposedly corrected the flow of energy by stimulating points along a complex network of meridians, which the Chinese healers had mapped out.
In Western holistic health, these theories about yin, yang, and meridians have largely been set aside in favor of a more scientific view. It is believed that acupuncture needles stimulate the central nervous system to release hormones and neurotransmitters, which can serve to boost the immune system, dull pain, and cause the body to run more smoothly in various ways. All in all, both the Western and the Chinese views of acupuncture propose roughly the same benefits, but with two different explanations.
The evidence for and against acupuncture
While the research on acupuncture has been mixed, we cannot argue with results. If thousands of people claim that this holistic health practice has helped them, then there is a good chance that there is something to it. Of course, many argue that some of these benefits can be attributed to the placebo effect, but the real healing effects of acupuncture cannot be ignored.
The clinical benefits of acupuncture can be difficult to study, especially because the effects are often subtle. However, a smattering of studies over the years have helped cast new light on this practice. For example, a 2004 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that acupuncture significantly reduced pain and improved mobility in people suffering from chronic osteoarthritis. A Mayo Clinic study in 2006 found that acupuncture improved symptoms of fibromyalgia in most patients. A 2000 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that acupuncture helped reduce nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy. These are just a few among many examples.
In the end, more study is needed to determine exactly how acupuncture works, but one thing is for certain: if you want to experience the maximum possible benefits from acupuncture, it is important to work with a licensed, qualified practitioner.
Acupuncture procedures, safety and risks
Standard acupuncture involves thin, metallic needles that are inserted at points either throughout the body or in crucial locations. Patients often feel a slight prick, but there is no significant pain. Coming out of a treatment session of this kind, many people report feeling energized or relaxed.
In both China and the West, holistic health practitioners have developed a few newer types of acupuncture, including:
- Electroacupuncture: In electroacupuncture, standard acupuncture needles are stimulated with a weak electric current while embedded in the pressure points. This is believed to enhance the effects.
- Sonopuncture: Sonopuncture uses sound waves in place of needles to stimulate the pressure points in a subtler way. The practice is often combined with traditional acupuncture.
- Acupressure: Acupressure relies on many of the same principles as acupuncture, but the practitioner uses pressure instead of needles, pressing on crucial points with his or her fingers.
In the U.S., the FDA regulates the types of needles that can be used in acupuncture, and all needles must meet certain standards of manufacture and labeling. Practitioners are required to use sterile, single-use needles, and it is important for the practitioner to swab pressure points with disinfectant before inserting needles. As long as you work with a qualified acupuncturist who follows these safety procedures, acupuncture is a very safe practice. Some people experience bruising, minor bleeding, irritation, or post-session lightheadedness, but these effects are rare.
By Marc Courtiol