Acupuncture is an ancient therapy. It has been used in many Eastern cultures for more than 3,000 years to improve and maintain health. Despite its long history, acupuncture has only recently begun to be offered as a complement or alternative to Western medicine.
The most common misconception about this practice is that a person must either be sick or in physical pain in order to experience the benefits of an acupuncture treatment. The truth is, acupuncture does more than simply treat symptoms — it is also a preventative process, used to maintain a balance of body, mind and spirit before a malady surfaces.
An acupuncturist’s job is to pay attention to the body’s “warning lights”– eye twitches, thinning hair, restless sleep, frequent colds, and headaches. While some of these concerns may appear to small to go to the doctor, an acupuncturist addresses those signs as one of the multiple ways in which our bodies “speak” to us, inviting us to address smaller concerns before they become big problems.
Acupuncture is also excellent for addressing chronic and critical health concerns as well. It can even be used in place of traditional anesthesia in certain medical procedures and has been clinically proven to alleviate the symptoms of high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, insomnia, infertility, and low immunity.
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.
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.
If standard treatments don't relieve your chronic low-back pain, acupuncture may do the job, and two respected medical groups suggest that people in this situation give it a try. One large study found that both actual and "sham" acupuncture worked better than conventional treatments for back pain that had lasted more than three months. The jury's still out on acupuncture for short-term (acute) pain in the low back.
Acupuncture may help relieve migraines or tension headaches. Two large studies found that people receiving acupuncture had fewer days with tension headaches than those receiving conventional care.
Studies that test how well acupuncture works against the pain of fibromyalgia have had mixed results. Some showed that it provided temporary pain relief, but others did not. A small study by the Mayo Clinic suggested that acupuncture may reduce two other problems of fibromyalgia: fatigue and anxiety. But overall, there's not enough evidence yet to prove that acupuncture works for fibromyalgia.
Acupuncture can be a helpful addition to conventional treatment for osteoarthritis, says the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. And some of the most promising, early research has shown acupuncture eased arthritis pain in the knee. However, more research is needed to prove without a doubt that it's effective for osteoarthritis.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Acupuncture was tested and compared with steroid pills for the hand and arm pain of carpal tunnel syndrome. Researchers in Taiwan gave one group eight acupuncture treatments, over about a month, and those patients reported more relief, for a longer time, than the group taking medicine. While studies like this have been promising, more evidence is still needed to confirm that acupuncture is effective for carpal tunnel syndrome.
Acupuncture provides relief from the pain of tooth extraction or dental surgery, but so does sham acupuncture, some studies show. Still, dental pain is considered by many to be one of the conditions that responds to acupuncture.
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.
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.
Acupuncture to Quit Smoking?
Acupuncture has been used for a variety of other conditions, including smoking cessation, insomnia, fatigue, depression, and allergies. The evidence is mixed at best for some uses of acupuncture. For example, acupuncture needles placed in the outer ear to help people stop smoking do not work, studies found.