What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an age-old healing practice of traditional Chinese medicine in which thin needles are placed at specific points in the body. It’s primarily used to relieve pain but also has been used to treat other conditions. More than 3 million Americans use acupuncture, but it is even more popular in other countries. In France, for example, one in five people has tried acupuncture.
How Acupuncture Works
Acupuncture seeks to release the flow of the body’s vital energy or “chi” by stimulating points along 14 energy pathways. Scientists say the needles cause the body to release endorphins — natural painkillers — and may boost blood flow and change brain activity. Skeptics say acupuncture works only because people believe it will, an effect called the placebo effect.
Does Acupuncture Hurt?
Acupuncture needles are very thin, and most people feel no pain or very little pain when they are inserted. They often say they feel energized or relaxed after the treatment. However, the needles can cause temporary soreness.
Acupoint: Other Pain
People have tried acupuncture for neck pain, muscle pain, tennis elbow, and menstrual cramps, hoping to avoid medicines and their side effects. The World Health Organization lists 28 different conditions that are sometimes treated with acupuncture. In the U.S., a review by the National Institutes of Health called for robust research to verify the promise that acupuncture holds for many different conditions.
A Boost for Pain Medicine
Acupuncture may provide added pain relief when it’s used along with pain medicine or another therapies, such as massage. Acupuncture can reduce the need for medicine and can improve the quality of life of people with chronic pain.
Acupuncture at the pericardium (P6) acupuncture point on the wrist can reduce the symptoms of nausea and vomiting, even after cancer drug treatments or surgery. Studies compared 10 different acupuncture methods — including needles, electrical stimulation, and acupressure — to medicines that block nausea or vomiting and found the acupuncture treatments worked.
Acupuncture and Cancer Care
Because acupuncture can lessen pain, nausea, and vomiting, it is sometimes used to help people cope with symptoms of cancer or chemotherapy. It also can help manage hot flashes associated with breast cancer. Be sure to talk to your doctor first and seek a practitioner who has experience working with cancer patients.
When to Consider Acupuncture
Because acupuncture rarely causes more than mild side effects, it is a potential alternative to pain medications or steroid treatments. It is also considered a “complementary” medicine that can be used along with other treatments. It is best to discuss the use of acupuncture with your health care provider.
Although acupuncture is generally safe and serious problems are rare, there are some risks. Needles that are not sterile can cause infection. In some acupuncture points, needles inserted too deeply can puncture the lungs or gallbladder or cause problems with your blood vessels. That is why it is important to use a practitioner who is well-trained in acupuncture.
Who Shouldn’t Use Acupuncture
People with bleeding disorders or who take blood thinners may have increased risk of bleeding. Electrical stimulation of the needles can cause problems for people with pacemakers or other electrical devices. Pregnant women should talk with their health care provider before having acupuncture. It’s important not to skip conventional medical care or rely on acupuncture alone to treat diseases or severe pain.
Choosing a Practitioner
It is important to receive treatment from someone who has met standards for education and training in acupuncture. States vary in their licensing requirements. There are national organizations that maintain standards, such as the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (a physician group) or the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Make sure that your practitioner uses sterile needles that are thrown away after one use.
Several other therapies use a different way of stimulating the acupuncture points. Moxibustion involves the burning of moxa, a bundle of dried mugwort and wormwood leaves, which can then be used to heat the acupuncture needles or warm the skin. Electroacupuncture adds electrical stimulation to the needles. Another recent variation uses laser needles that are placed o
Acupressure vs. Acupuncture
If you are afraid of needles, you may be able to get much of the same effect from acupressure. Acupressure involves pressing or massaging the acupuncture points to stimulate the energy pathways. Scientific comparisons of acupressure and acupuncture are limited, but acupressure has been shown to be effective in reducing nausea and lessening labor pain.
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