Although comparitively new in the U.S., acupuncture is one segment of an ancient system of medicine developed thousands of years ago in China. At this time there are over three million practitioners worldwide. It is a safe, drug free therapy that uses very fine needles inserted just under the skin into specific acupuncture points. Numerous hospitals in the U.S. use acupuncture including Massachussetts General, and Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston; and Columbia-Presbyterian and Beth Israel in New York amongst many others.
The classical Chinese explaination of how acupuncture works is that pathways of energy flow in regular patterns throughout the body. These pathways, also called meridians, are like rivers that irrigate and nourish the system. In fact, Western physicists are beginning to measure the impulses felt along the meridians. Like rivers, obstructions can dam and impede the natural flow. Acupuncture aims to reestablish harmony and balance in this flow of energy in the meridian system.
Modern science shows that needling acupuncture points somehow stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals either change the experience of pain, or trigger the release of other substances which influence the body’s own internal regulating system. The improved energy and biochemical balance produced by acupuncture results in stimulating the body’s innate healing abilities, and in promoting physical and emotional well-being.
Chinese medicine also encompasses massage or bodywork, meditation, and therapeutic movement for health similar to T’ai Chi called Chi Kung, [or Qigong]. Acupuncture can be used alone but works even better when done in combination with these other methods and others such as dietary modifications. Often acupuncture is seen solely as a tool for pain reduction. Yet by strengthening underlying imbalances or weaknesses, and activating the body’s own healing response, it can be a powerful tool for elimination of disease. It is especially effective for chronic conditions because it aims to treat the root cause rather than solely the symptoms. In addition, by treating the underlying constitution of a person who is largely well, acupuncture excels as a preventative therapy.
The body can be coaxed into a more balanced state by insertion of fine needles, or warming of the points along the superficial pathways of energy flow [meridians]. This may be by either stimulating or by soothing the quality of the energy. The pulse is key in discerning the quality of energy and is taken in three positions on each wrist. Detailed questioning about the complaint; as well as medical history, lifestyle, and function of body systems [such as sleep, appetite, etc.]; looking at the tongue, and palpation are all essential for diagnosis and effective treatment. Specific organs or areas identified in diagnosis can be affected using points a great distance from them by activating the proper pathway.
The first treatment usually lasts an hour and a half, and subsequent ones an hour. Length of treatment depends upon the severity, nature, and duration of the complaint. With severe cases, 2-3 treatments may be needed in a week, yet just a few treatments may suffice for something of a short duration. For complex or long standing conditions, several months may be recommended. Some degenerative conditions may require treatment over time, with treatments less frequent as the condition improves.
Response to treatment is quite individual, since every person is unique. Many different reactions to treatment have been observed. For some the trouble resolves quickly, for others, a degree of reduction in the symptoms may be seen. Some patients will do best with continued maintenance, others with periodic “tune ups”. Side effects are rare, other than an occasional slight bruising. Sometimes positive improvement in areas other than the main complaint, such as better sleep, elimination, energy level, or general well-being show up. A deep sense of relaxation is common during treatment.
One thing people may find surprising about acupuncture, is that acupuncture points may be quite far from the affected area. Points most distant from the main complaint are often the most powerful. For example, points on the hands and feet are most effective for headache.
Many people assume that acupuncture will be painful, but because the needles are so thin, the sensation is only of a very slight pinch with insertion. When the channel is contacted a few millimeters below the surface of the skin, there might be a "dragging", or "heavy" feeling. It is generally acceptable and only lasts one to two seconds if it is felt at all. Needles are the thickness of a hair, quite flexible, and made of stainless steel. Of course, all needles are prepackaged, sterile, and are disposed of immediately after use.
Conditions acupuncture can treat include drugs, alcohol, and nicotine addiction; asthma; A.D.D.; A.I.D.S./H.I.V. symptoms; depression and anxiety; diabetes; colds and flu; digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, or IBS; insomnia; fibromyalgia; headaches; migraines; muscular, tendon, and arthritic pain, both chronic and acute; gynecological issues around menstruation, menopause, or fertility; high blood pressure; M.S. symptoms; neurological conditions; post-stroke symptoms; skin disorders; and thyroid imbalances. Studies have shown acupuncture to greatly reduce side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation as well.
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