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Acupuncture is one of the oldest systems of medicine known. It has been used to treat a variety of illnesses for more than 2,000 years. The earliest recorded use of acupuncture dates from 200 BC. Knowledge of acupuncture spread from China along Arab trade routes towards the West. However, up until the early 1970s, most Americans had never heard of acupuncture. However, in 1997, the U.S. National Institutes of Health formally recognized acupuncture as a mainstream medicine healing option with a statement documenting the procedure’s safety and efficacy for treating a range of health conditions. Acupuncture is basically a component of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system of medicine.

The Chinese theory behind it is that a life force flows through the body along a network of so-called meridians quite distinct from the nervous system. Each meridian (or energy pathway) corresponds to one organ, or group of organs, that governs particular bodily functions. The theory of the channels (meridians) is fundamental to the understanding of acupuncture. There are 365 mapped acupuncture points along the 12 major channels, as well as over a thousand extra points found on the hand, ear, and scalp. Qi (pronounced “chee”) is the energy moved through the channels and the movement of qi helps to balance yin and yang (hot or cold properties), balance an excess or deficiency in the body, and nourish the internal organs. Achieving the proper flow of qi is thought to create health and wellness as qi is supposed to maintain the dynamic balance of yin and yang, which are complementary opposites. According to the Chinese theory, everything in nature has both yin and yang. An imbalance of qi (too much, too little, or blocked flow) causes disease.

When health breaks down, the part of the body affected is believed to alter the flow of force at a particular point on a meridian. The acupuncturist corrects the energy imbalance by inserting very fine sterilized needles into the skin at specific points along the meridian lines. These acupuncture points are places where the energy pathway is close to the surface of the skin. The needles are then manipulated or, more rarely, a weak electric current is passed through them. Performed by an expert, the procedure is painless.

Work of the Acupuncturist

A diagnosis based on TCM is made prior to the administration of acupuncture needles and is actually the single most important procedure of the whole process or therapy. As it treats the whole person, each diagnosis is highly individualized. This TCM diagnosis, which is much different from diagnosis in Western medicine, is based on a practitioner’s thorough patient interview. The patient interview is useful for assessing the body’s balance of yin and yang (hot or cold properties), for evaluating deficiency or excess patterns of disease, and for determining the state of the body’s internal organs and channels. In addition to asking questions, the acupuncturist checks for the pulse at several points along the wrist and look at the shape, color, and coating of the patient’s tongue. The acupuncturist may also look at the color and texture of the skin, patient’s posture, and other physical characteristics that offer clues about the general health of he sufferer.

Once an assessment is made, a series of acupuncture points is selected to improve the balance of yin and yang, to harmonize a deficient or excess condition, and to nourish the organ or channel involved in the disease process.

The patient lies down on a padded examining table, and the acupuncturist inserts the needles, twirling or gently jiggling each as it goes in. One may not feel the needles at all, or may feel a twitch or a quick twinge of pain that disappears when the needle is completely inserted. Once the needles are all in place, there is a rest period of 20 to 60 minutes. Stimulation of the selected acupoints (situated along ‘meridians’ in the body) by inserting needles is believed to promote the flow of energy through the system, and thereby restore the body’s balance. During this time, the patient usually feels relaxed and sleepy and may even doze off. Manipulation of the needle following insertion can assist with moving the qi, and can help to nourish or sedate the channel. At the end of the session, the acupuncturist quickly and painlessly removes the needles.

Certain acupuncture techniques, such as the insertion of the needle at various times during inhalation or exhalation, are thought to affect the outcome of treatment. For certain conditions, acupuncture is more effective when the needles are heated using a technique known as "moxibustion". The acupuncturist lights a small bunch of the dried herb moxa (mugwort) and holds it above the needles. The herb, which burns slowly and gives off a little smoke and a pleasant, incense-like smell, never touches the body.

Another variation is electrical acupuncture. This technique utilizes an external source of electricity attached to the acupuncture needles to create a weak current across two or more acupoints. In this procedure, you may feel a mild tingling, or nothing at all. Other methods frequently used in a TCM treatment include cupping (the use of suction cups to draw heat from the body), guasha (the use of spoons to apply friction to the skin) and tuina (chinese massage).

The effects of acupuncture are however complex. How it works is not entirely clear. The needling process, and other techniques used in acupuncture, produces a variety of effects in the body and the brain. The stimulated nerve fibers transmit signals to the spinal cord and brain activating the body’s central nervous system. The spinal cord and brain then release hormones responsible for making you feel less pain while improving overall health. Basically, acupuncture increases your pain threshold, which explains why it produces long-term pain relief. Acupuncture may also increase blood circulation and body temperature, affect white blood cell activity (responsible for our immune function), reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and regulate blood sugar levels.

There are several different approaches to acupuncture. Among the most common are:


TCM-based acupuncture : It bases a diagnosis on eight principles of complementary opposites (yin/yang, internal/external, excess/deficiency, hot/cold).


French energetic acupuncture : It emphasizes meridian patterns, in particular the yin-yang pairs of primary meridians.


Korean hand acupuncture : Based on the principle that the hands and feet have concentrations of qi, and that applying acupuncture needles to these areas is effective for the entire body.


Auricular acupuncture : Usually used in treating addiction disorders, is based on the idea that the ear is a reflection of the body and that applying acupuncture needles to certain points on the ear affects corresponding organs.


Myofascially-based acupuncture : It involves feeling the meridian lines in search of tender points, then applying needles. Tender points indicate areas of abnormal energy flow.


Japanese styles of acupuncture : Also referred to as "meridian therapy," it emphasizes needling technique and feeling meridians in diagnosis.

What is acupuncture used for ?

Acupuncture is used mainly in the relief of chronic pain, the treatment of drug addiction, as a local anesthetic and as a form of preventive medicine. In the western world its anesthetic properties have had some degree of scientific confirmation; but for reasons yet unknown, acupuncture works more effectively for some people than for others. It is not suited for the treatment of acute illness, for very young children or for pregnant women. However, if you were seeing a practitioner prior to your pregnancy it is generally safe to continue receiving treatment from them during your pregnancy. You should inform your acupuncturist about any treatments or medications you are taking and all medical conditions you have. Acupuncture is although not recommended during the menstrual cycle.

Acupuncture has been used in connection with the following conditions


addiction (such as alcoholism)



anxiety and other psychological disorders



carpal tunnel syndrome and overuse syndromes similar to carpal tunnel syndrome

chronic and recurrent bladder and kidney infections






erectile dysfunction

facial tics


gastroesophageal reflux (felt as heartburn or indigestion)

headaches (including migraine)

high blood pressure

infertility (both male and female)


irregular periods

low back pain

memory problems

menopausal symptoms

menstrual cramps

multiple sclerosis

neck pain

nerve pain due to compression


pain resulting from spinal cord injuries

premenstrual syndrome (PMS)psoriasis


sensory disturbances



sore throat (called pharyngitis)

spastic colon (often called irritable bowel syndrome)

sports injuries



stroke rehabilitation


tennis elbow

tinnitus (ringing in the ears)


urinary problems such as incontinence


As a large part of the skill of acupuncture is in correct diagnosis, it involves sound anatomical knowledge and now, benefits from western medical techniques. While awareness of acupuncture is growing, many conventional physicians are still unfamiliar with both the theory and practice of acupuncture. Still, it has attracted an increasing number of doctors to undergo an accredited training course in acupuncture.

You can also safely combine acupuncture with prescription drugs and other conventional treatments, but it is important for your doctor to be aware of and monitor how your acupuncture treatment may be affecting your conventional therapies.

Number of treatments required

The number of acupuncture treatments you need depends on the complexity of your illness, whether it's a chronic or recent condition, and your general health. For some, you may need only one treatment, while a long-standing, chronic illness may require treatments once or twice a week for several months to achieve good results.