Acupuncture

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a Chinese therapy that has been used for centuries. It is based on the theory that there is energy, called chi or qi, flowing through your body. Chi is thought to flow along energy pathways called meridians. Acupuncturists believe a blocking or imbalance of the flow of chi at any point on a pathway may result in illness. Chinese medicine practitioners believe acupuncture unblocks and rebalances the flow of chi to restore health.

People often use acupuncture to relieve pain. Some Western medical researchers have studied acupuncture. They believe that it may reduce pain through body chemicals that have calming effects (opioid peptides). Or it may reduce pain by affecting glands (such as the hypothalamus) that produce substances (hormones) that regulate the body.

Chinese acupuncture usually is done by putting very thin needles into the skin at certain points on the body. This is done to influence energy flow along the body's meridians. Other types of acupuncture may use heat, pressure, or mild electrical current to stimulate energy flow along these meridians.

What is acupuncture used for?

People use acupuncture to relieve pain and treat certain health conditions. You can use it by itself or as part of a treatment program. Studies have found promising results for the use of acupuncture to treat nausea and vomiting related to pregnancy, chemotherapy, and postsurgery pain. Acupuncture also may be useful for:

  • Stroke rehabilitation , which involves relearning skills that a person lost because of brain damage from a stroke.
  • Headache. A study shows that adding acupuncture to standard treatment leads to significant, long-lasting relief from chronic headaches, especially migraines.1
  • Menstrual cramps.
  • Tennis elbow .
  • Fibromyalgia , or widespread pain and tenderness of muscle and soft tissue.
  • Myofascial pain , caused by spasm in the muscles.
  • Osteoarthritis , or the breakdown of the tissue (cartilage) that protects and cushions joints. A study found that acupuncture can reduce knee pain and increase movement of the knee in people with osteoarthritis.2
  • Low back pain.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome , or pressure on a nerve in the wrist that results in tingling, numbness, weakness, or pain of the fingers and hand.
  • Asthma , or inflammation in the tubes that carry air to the lungs, resulting in periodic episodes of difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing.
  • Drug addiction . Acupuncture may help reduce symptoms of withdrawal after a person stops taking a drug he or she is addicted to. It may also help prevent a relapse. More studies are needed to learn about the benefits of acupuncture.
  • Dental pain.
  • Labor pain.

Is acupuncture safe?

In general, acupuncture is safe when done by a certified acupuncturist. A state license ensures that the acupuncturist has a certain level of training and follows certain practice guidelines. But there are still a few states where acupuncture is not licensed.

In rare cases, complications or adverse events may occur. If the acupuncturist uses nonsterilized needles, there is a risk of infection. But acupuncturists today dispose of their needles after one use. Make sure the practitioner you visit uses sterilized or disposable needles. Talk with your doctor if you have other questions about the safety of acupuncture.

Acupuncture may be a valuable treatment for certain health conditions. Your doctor may recommend it along with conventional medical treatment for many illnesses.

Always tell your doctor if you are using an alternative therapy or if you are thinking about combining an alternative therapy with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on an alternative therapy.

Citations

  1. Vickers AJ, et al. (2004). Acupuncture for chronic headache in primary care: Large, pragmatic, randomised trial. BMJ, 328(7442): 744–749.
  2. Berman BM, et al. (2004). Effectiveness of acupuncture as adjunctive therapy in osteoarthritis of the knee. Annals of Internal Medicine, 141(12): 901–910.

Last Updated: June 30, 2009

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