Acupuncture Article

Ask someone ten or fifteen years ago if they knew anyone who had received acupuncture, and the response probably would have been no. Or if yes, it was something like "y sister's friend's mother's daughter gets acupuncture".  But that has changed. Now, with the increased popularity of this ancient healing tradition, the answer to that question is just as likely to be yes than no.  Why the popularity?  What is acupuncture anyway?  Is there really anything to it? A conservative estimate as to the age of Chinese medicine is roughly 4500 years, though most historians consider it to be much older than that.  As to the exact genesis of acupuncture, that is where knowledge and legend come together to blur history.  Other than the fact the first needles were made of whittled down stone, we do not know who had the idea to place needles in specific points on the body to treat a specific ailment. The basic philosophy behind acupuncture/Chinese medicine is that "as in Heaven, so too on Earth".  In other words, that which keeps the universe and Nature in balance, that which governs the movement of the stars and the seasons of the year, also governs and regulates the human body.  This force is described as "Qi", which is often loosely translated as "energy".  The deeper and more significant meaning of Qi as it relates to health is that it is the driving force behind the vitality and functioning of the body as a unified whole.  Qi flows through pathways in the body called meridians which innervate the entire body.  Optimal health, then, is characterized by unimpeded flow of Qi throughout the body.  A symptom such as pain arises due to a blockage, like an energetic dam, to this flow.  The reason for inserting needles in anyone for whatever condition is to break these blockages down and thus restore the proper flow of Qi. So, this all sounds interesting (or strange), but does it work?  In the last several years there has been an increasing amount of research from a Western medicine/science point of view into figuring out the exact ways acupuncture may work.  Using state-of-the-art technologies such as functional MRIs and PET scans, researchers have discovered a number of interesting findings.  Several different parts of the brain are affected by the insertion of acupuncture needles at specific points.  These different parts of the brain control or influence various physiological functions, including the experiencing of pain and mood elevation among others.  A telling feature of this is that these effects on the brain are tied to specific points.  For example, a point on the wrist (Pericardium 6) is used for nausea, such as in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.  A nearby point that is not a real acupuncture point, called a "sham" point, does not induce the same physiological response.  These various effects on brain activity are considered a possible explanation for acupuncture's purported positive effects on such conditions as pain, depression and anxiety, and hormone-based issues.

Another explanation, at least in regards to pain relief, is the idea that acupuncture increases the body's production of endorphins, our own built-in pain reliever.  This is often considered a possibility when severe pain is sometimes quickly alleviated by an acupuncture treatment, such as in acute migraine headache pain. Detractors often cite the placebo effect as the explanation for acupuncture's suggested benefits, though this can be said for most any therapy, including prescription drugs.  Though this may be a legitimate explanation in some cases, as more and more research is done on how acupuncture works, the claim that acupuncture is only placebo will be harder to make.  In addition, there are currently forty-nine studies on acupuncture underway in the U.S., according to  As these study results become known, more light will be shed on both the efficacy of acupuncture and how it may work to yield positive outcomes.  (For a view from a skeptic's point of view, there is an article at As mentioned earlier, acupuncture is thought to treat a variety of health conditions.  A large part of most acupuncturists' practice consists of treating various pain conditions, from chronic back pain to arthritic knees to migraine headaches.  A common question that is asked is, "How many treatments will I have to get for pain relief?"  This is a difficult question to answer since every person presents with a unique history.  Considerations such as how long the pain has been present, how severe the pain is, and if there are any physical structures involved as a cause of the pain, for example, a degenerative disc in the back, all influence the number of treatments needed.  In addition, if we take the previous discussion into consideration about the very specific physiological changes that occur in the body with an acupuncture treatment, then the frequency of treatment becomes quite important.  In other words, subsequent treatments need to be given within a time frame that allows the effects to be cumulative.  (A doctor would not tell you to take an anti-biotic once a week; it needs to be taken every day in order to give its full therapeutic effect. Other conditions that are considered to respond quite well to acupuncture are digestive issues, hormonal conditions like hot flashes, and cancer treatment support, such as treating nausea and anemia.  In fact, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX and a cancer hospital in Shanghai, China were recently awarded a $2.15 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to expand ongoing studies of traditional Chinese medicine in the treatment of cancer. Acupuncture's acceptance within the medical community in the U.S. seems to be on the rise.  In a poll conducted in September 2005 of almost 900 physicians concerning complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), acupuncture was considered the most effective of twelve therapies listed.  Sixty percent of those surveyed believed acupuncture to be effective to some extent.  When viewed as a complement to conventional medical treatments, acupuncture again received the highest ratings of any form of CAM-65% of the physicians believed it to be an effective complement to some degree. In this age of ever-increasing technological wizardry and sophistication, there is a danger of older knowledge and wisdom being forgotten.  Acupuncture represents a potential bridge between the old and the new.  The accumulated knowledge of almost 5000 years of how the human body works in conjunction with our physical environment has just as much relevancy today as it did in ancient China. The modern understanding of acupuncture to such diseases as cancer, in a complementary way, offers an opportunity of merging the two approaches into a truly integrated treatment to our health care.  As more people search for such an approach to their own health, acupuncture stands as a viable road to improved well-being.