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Acupuncture

Acupuncture is one of the main forms of treatment in traditional Chinese medicine. It involves the use of sharp, thin needles that are inserted in the body at very specific points. This process is believed to adjust and alter the body's energy flow into healthier patterns, and is used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and health conditions.

Purpose

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends acupuncture as an effective treatment for over forty medical problems, including allergies, respiratory conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, gynecological problems, nervous conditions, and disorders of the eyes, nose and throat, and childhood illnesses, among others. Acupuncture has been used in the treatment of alcoholism and substance abuse. It is an effective and low-cost treatment for headaches and chronic pain, associated with problems like back injuries and arthritis. It has also been used to supplement invasive Western treatments like chemotherapy and surgery. Acupuncture is generally most effective when used as prevention or before a health condition becomes acute, but it has been used to help patients suffering from cancer and AIDS. Acupuncture is limited in treating conditions or traumas that require surgery or emergency care (such as for broken bones).

In the early 1900s, only a few Western physicians who had visited China were fascinated by acupuncture, but outside of Asian-American communities it remained virtually unknown until the 1970s, when Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit China. On Nixon's trip, journalists were amazed to observe major operations being performed on patients without the use of anesthetics. Instead, wide-awake patients were being operated on with only acupuncture needles inserted into them to control pain. During that time, a famous columnist for the New York Times, James Reston, had to undergo surgery and elected to use acupuncture instead of pain medication, and he wrote some convincing stories on its effectiveness.

Today, acupuncture is being practiced in all 50 states by over 9,000 practitioners, with over 4,000 MDs including it in their practices. Acupuncture has shown notable success in treating many conditions, and over 15 million Americans have used it as a therapy. Acupuncture, however, remains largely unsupported by the medical establishment. The American Medical Association has been resistant to researching it, as it is based on concepts very different from the Western scientific model.

Acupuncture sites and meridians on the face and neck.

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Several forms of acupuncture are being used today in America. Japanese acupuncture uses extremely thin needles and does not incorporate herbal medicine in its practice. Auricular acupuncture uses acupuncture points only on the ear, which are believed to stimulate and balance internal organs. .

Key terms

Acupressure Form of massage using acupuncture points.

Auricular acupuncture Acupuncture using only points found on the ears.

Chi Basic life energy.

Meridian Channel through which chi travels in the body.

Moxibustion Acupuncture technique which burns the herb moxa or mugwort.

Tonification Acupuncture technique for strengthening the body.

Yin/Yang Universal characteristics used to describe aspects of the natural world.

Basic ideas of chinese medicine

Chinese medicine views the body as a small part of the universe, and subject to universal laws and principles of harmony and balance. Chinese medicine does not draw a sharp line, as Western medicine does, between mind and body. The Chinese system believes that emotions and mental states are every bit as influential on disease as purely physical mechanisms, and considers factors like work, environment, lifestyle and relationships as fundamental to the overall picture of a patient's health. Chinese medicine also uses very different symbols and ideas to discuss the body and health. While Western medicine typically describes health in terms of measurable physical processes made up of chemical reactions, the Chinese use ideas like yin and yang, chi, the organ system, and the five elements to describe health and the body.

MEDICAL PROBLEMS AND ACUPUNCTURE. In Chinese medicine, disease as seen as imbalances in the organ system or chi meridians, and the goal of any remedy

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Auricular acupuncture

or treatment is to assist the body in reestablishing its innate harmony. Disease can be caused by internal factors like emotions, external factors like the environment and weather, and other factors like injuries, trauma, diet, and germs. However, infection is seen not as primarily a problem with germs and viruses, but as a weakness in the energy of the body which is allowing a sickness to occur. In Chinese medicine, no two illnesses are ever the same, as each body has its own characteristics of symptoms and balance. Acupuncture is used to open or adjust the flow of chi throughout the organ system, which will strengthen the body and prompt it to heal itself.

A VISIT TO THE ACUPUNCTURIST. The first thing an acupuncturist will do is get a thorough idea of a patient's medical history and symptoms, both physical and emotional. This is done with a long questionnaire and interview. Then the acupuncturist will examine the patient to find further symptoms, looking closely at the tongue, the pulse at various points in the body, the complexion, general behavior, and other signs like coughs or pains. From this, the practitioner will be able to determine patterns of symptoms which indicate which organs and areas are imbalanced. Depending on the problem, the acupuncturist will insert needles to manipulate chi on one or more of the twelve organ meridians. On these twelve meridians, there are nearly 2,000 points which can be used in acupuncture, with around 200 points being most frequently used by traditional acupuncturists. During an individual treatment, one to twenty needles may be used, depending on which meridian points are chosen.

Acupuncture needles are always sterilized and acupuncture is a very safe procedure. The depth of insertion of needles varies, depending on which chi channels are being treated. Some points barely go beyond superficial layers of skin, while some acupuncture points require a depth of 1-3 in (2.5-7.5 cm) of needle. The needles generally do not cause pain. Patients sometimes report pinching sensations and often pleasant sensations, as the body experiences healing. Depending on the problem, the acupuncturist might spin or move the needles, or even pass a slight electrical current through some of them. Moxibustion may be sometimes used, in which an herbal mixture (moxa or mugwort) is either burned like incense on the acupuncture point or on the end of the needle, which is believed to stimulate chi in a particular way. Also, acupuncturists sometimes use cupping, during which small suction cups are placed on meridian points to stimulate them.

How long the needles are inserted also varies. Some patients only require a quick in and out insertion to clear problems and provide tonification (strengthening of health), while some other conditions might require needles inserted up to an hour or more. The average visit to an acupuncturist takes about thirty minutes. The number of visits to the acupuncturist varies as well, with some conditions improved in one or two sessions and others requiring a series of six or more visits over the course of weeks or months.

 Precautions

Acupuncture is generally a very safe procedure. Also, a patient should always feel comfortable and confident that their acupuncturist is knowledgable and properly trained.

Research and general acceptance

Mainstream medicine has been slow to accept acupuncture. The reason for this is that the mechanism of acupuncture is difficult to scientifically understand or measure, such as the invisible energy of chi in the body. Western medicine, admitting that acupuncture works in many cases, has theorized that the energy meridians are actually part of the nervous system and that acupuncture relieves pain by releasing endorphins, or natural pain killers, into the bloodstream. Despite the ambiguity in the biochemistry involved, acupuncture continues to show effectiveness in clinical tests, from reducing pain to alleviating the symptoms of chronic illnesses, and research in acupuncture is currently growing. The Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institute of Health is currently funding research in the use of acupuncture for treating depression and attention-deficit disorder.

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