The 5,000-year-old Chinese art of Acupuncture
The 5,000-year-old Chinese art of acupuncture involves the stimulation of specific points on the body by a variety of techniques-usually hair-thin metallic needles-to treat or prevent illness. It’s relatively new to this country, but it’s rapidly gaining acceptance for many ailments. In 1997, after looking at thousands of studies and interviewing leading researchers, a panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health concluded that acupuncture is an effective treatment for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, surgery in adults and post-operative dental pain. Getting needled, the panel said, can also be helpful in combination with other therapies in the reatment of addictions, stroke rehabilitation, headaches, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low-back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma.
What does treatment involve?
Your acupuncturist will probably get things started by asking a lot of questions about your personal and family medical history; recent events that might have contributed to your illness; and how you’re responding to various stimuli, such as heat and cold. During the treatment itself, you’ll sit or lie on a padded table while he or she inserts very fine sterile needles into your skin. You might feel a small pinprick sensation when the needle is first inserted; once it’s in, you may experience numbness or a tingling sensation that goes away after a few seconds. Your acupuncturist might also manipulate the needles, apply light electricity to them, or heat them.
Depending on your response and your health problem, you might need just one session or many sessions. Keep in mind, too, that most acupuncturists see needle therapy as just one part of treatment; yours might also suggest herbs, vitamin or mineral supplements, and changes in diet and exercise.
If your acupuncturist recommends an herbal remedy, be sure to mention any other drugs or herbs you’re taking to avoid potentially harmful interactions. Note, too, that because the government doesn’t regulate herbal products, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting (in rare cases, products may be contaminated with undesirable substances). Also, remember that the NIH’s evaluation of acupuncture looked only at the effectiveness of needles — not dietary supplements and herbs.
How does it work?
The Chinese believe that good health depends on the proper flow of a vital energy called qi (chee) that moves through our bodies along invisible meridians, or pathways. Inserting needles into particular points along these meridians, they say, can tweak this life force into proper balance. treatment of addictions, stroke rehabilitation, headaches, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low-back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma.
This idea hasn’t been proven, but a number of studies show that acupuncture does bring about real physiological changes, sometimes far from the point where needles are inserted. In one study, for example, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center used advanced imaging equipment to view the brains of nine patients — four pain sufferers and five healthy people — while they underwent acupuncture. In every case, the researchers saw blood flow increase in the thalamus, a kind of relay station for pain messages in the brain, along with other changes in the brain stem and cortex.
How safe is it?
It’s very safe, as long as your acupuncturist uses either sterilized or disposable needles to prevent the spread of infection. One possible risk is bruising where the needles were inserted; the bruises are usually small and go away within a few days. Aspirin and other pain relievers can make bruising worse, though, so be sure to let your acupuncturist know if you’re taking any. It’s also a good idea to let your doctor know what you’re up to, so he or she can coordinate your acupuncture with the rest of your medical care. Your doctor will also want to rule out life-threatening conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and acute infections.
How much does acupuncture cost?
A first visit to an acupuncturist usually costs between $50 and $125; expect follow-up visits to range from $30 to $80. Physicians generally charge a little more. Not all insurance companies cover acupuncture treatments, so be sure to check your policy ahead of time.