So you get nasty headaches, and you’ve heard from friends that acupuncture has helped them with their chronic pain, but it’s pretty hard to believe that sticking huge needles in your body is going to make the pain go away.
Would it help if we told you that acupuncture is actually one of the oldest and most commonly-used medical procedures in the world? Maybe you’ll be more open-minded when you discover that the World Health Organization recommends acupuncture as one of a variety of methods for treating a long list of conditions—asthma, cataracts, respiratory ailments, toothaches, arthritis, low back pain, menstrual cramps, gastritis, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel and migraines—and research has shown that it can reduce nausea and vomiting after surgery and chemotherapy.
Curiosity piqued? Reading more will have you on pins and needles.
First used in China over 2,000 years ago, Americans were finally introduced to acupuncture in 1971 when New York Times reporter James Reston wrote about how Chinese doctors used the technique to ease his pain after surgery. Fast-forward and, according to the comprehensive 2002 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 8.2 million adult Americans have used acupuncture, and a whopping 2.1 million used it in 2001.
Far from quackery, acupuncture is studied, regulated and promoted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, one of the 27 official institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As explained by the NCCAM, the term “acupuncture” actually refers to a group of procedures involving stimulation of anatomical points on the body by a variety of techniques. However, the most common is the practice of penetrating those specific points with long, hair-thin needles that are then manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation. Most people feel no or very minimal pain, and some people are energized by the treatment, while others feel relaxed.
What exactly is happening besides minor masochism? Well, in traditional Chinese medicine, the physical human body is seen as the delicate balance of two opposing, necessary forces—yin (cold, slow and passive) and yang (hot, excited and active). Pain and disease are understood as an imbalance between these forces, which leads to a blockage in the flow of qi (vital energy) along the body’s 12 main meridians (pathways) and eight secondary meridians. When a qualified practitioner inserts needles into one or more of the 2,000 acupuncture points on the body which connect with these meridians, the blockages are cleared and the body is brought back into balance. It may sound strange, but research has found that it works. Western studies attempt to explain the connection by proposing that the needles help regulate the nervous system and may alter brain chemistry so as to affect immune function.
What’s the best way to get needled? Do your research by reading studies and asking questions to find out how effective acupuncture is with your condition. Only work with a fully licensed specialist and don’t be afraid to ask for explanations of procedures. Acupuncture needles were approved by the FDA in 1996, with the requirement that they be sterile, nontoxic and labeled for single use. Needles should be removed from an individual packet before use and sterilized with alcohol. The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture offers an extensive list of qualified practitioners on their website at www.medicalacupuncture.org.
And check with your insurance company to see if the services are covered. Who knew that a prick could be so helpful?