Alternative Medicine - Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that involves stimulating certain points, referred to as acupoints, on a person's body to relieve pain and promote healing and overall well-being. These points are most often stimulated by thin needles and are found along twelve pathways in the body, called meridians. According to acupuncturists, these pathways have energy, called Qi (or Chi; both pronounced chee), flowing through them. For the body to be healthy, it is important for the flow of Qi to be balanced, and needling of acupoints helps to balance the flow of energy. Acupuncture also aids in balancing yin and yang, opposite forces that make up all things, including the human body.

Acupuncture has become popular in the United States in recent years. It has been found to help relieve pain and restore and maintain health. Many people use acupuncture in combination with other forms of treatment and have found it helps them recover from their conditions at a faster rate. Acupuncture has been found to help include headaches, drug addictions, asthma, tonsillitis, nausea, paralysis, stomach ailments, and even the common cold. In a few cases, it has even been used to control pain during surgeries performed in Asian countries. Mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety, have also been treated with acupuncture.

Yin and Yang

Chinese medicine has been influenced by the Chinese philosophy Taoism. In Taoism, it is believed that everything is made up of yin and yang. Yin is all things dark, negative, and feminine. Yang is all things light, positive, and masculine. One cannot exist without the other. However, one may over-power the other and create an imbalance. Acupuncturists believe if yin and yang are not balanced within a person, he or she will be more prone to illness or disease. Acupuncture helps to restore yin and yang balance.

Qi: Life Energy

As well as having balanced yin and yang, a person should be concerned with having balanced Qi, or life energy. In English, Qi has been called "life

Acupuncture sites and meridians on the face and neck. (Electronic Illustrators Group. Reproduced by permission of Gale Group.)
Acupuncture sites and meridians on the face and neck. (
Electronic Illustrators Group
. Reproduced by permission of
Gale Group

energy," "vital life energy," "life force energy," or "life activity." This energy is invisible and is considered vital to each person. Acupuncturists believe that a balanced flow of this energy is important to a person's health. If the flow is interrupted at any point, some parts of the body are going to be affected and not function at their best. This may lead to illness or disease. In order to restore health, Qi must be rebalanced. The practice of acupuncture, then, works to rebalance the flow of Qi and allow the body to naturally heal itself.

The Ancient History of Acupuncture

Acupuncture goes as far back as five thousand years and was developed by the ancient Chinese as a form of medicine. Ancient Chinese practitioners mapped out acupoints, the places on the body to be stimulated. Researchers have found that these points have more nerve endings than other areas of the skin. These acupoints total more than 365; some say there are as many as one thousand points. Acupuncture was developed and used in China for many years before it spread to neighboring countries and eventually to Europe and the United States. The first introduction of acupuncture in the United States occurred during the 1700s, but it wasn't until the twentieth century that it became a popular form of medical treatment.

Stimulating Acupoints: Needles and Other Ways

Acupuncturists most often stimulate points on a person's body with needles that are as thin as a hair. Early needles were made of stone, bamboo, iron, silver, or even gold. Today, acupuncture needles are made of stainless steel and are typically used only once and then thrown away. Not all of the needles are straight. One type, called a staple, is round with a small needle and can be attached to the ear so the patient can wear it out of the office. This type of needle can be worn for about two weeks and is used often with patients who suffer from addictions, such asnicotine addiction.


Acupuncture sharply increased in popularity in the United States following President Richard Nixon's (1913–1994) trip to China in 1970. During this trip, one of the people from the Nixon group needed to have an appendectomy, a procedure in which the appendix is removed. During the operation, pain was controlled by the use of acupuncture. After seeing the effects of acupuncture on his colleague, Nixon returned to America and made an effort to increase public awareness of acupuncture.

Other ways of stimulating the points include using pressure with hands (acupressure), electrical stimulation, lasers, magnet therapy, drug needling, and moxibustion. In electrical stimulation, a weak electric current is sent into the acupoint to stimulate it. In laser acupuncture a laser is used instead of a needle to stimulate a point. Magnet therapy has the acupuncturist placing magnets over the acupoints for stimulation. Drug needling is when herbal medicine or vitamins are injected into the acupoints, and moxibustion is when the mugwort herb is burned and placed on the head of the needle in order to send heat into the acupoint.

Acupuncturists most often stimulate points on a person's body with needles that are as thin as a hair. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced by permission.)
Acupuncturists most often stimulate points on a person's body with needles that are as thin as a hair. (
. Reproduced by permission.)

What Does Acupuncture Feel Like?

Surprisingly, acupuncture is not painful. Acupuncturists are trained in the proper insertion of the needles so they don't cause pain. However, patients will feel a tingling sensation and possibly some cramping or heaviness in the area of the needle. Typically, the needles are inserted about onequarter to one inch deep into the skin. The acupuncturist will usually insert only about twelve needles during one session. The placement of the needles depends upon a patient's condition. For example, if a patient is suffering from back pain, the needles may be placed in the leg. Once the needles are placed in their appropriate acupoints, the acupuncturist may twirl them to stimulate the acupoints even more. The idea of having needles inserted into a person's body may not sound appealing, but it is not as scary as it looks, and it is thought to offer great benefits to the body.

[ See also Acupuncturist section in Chapter 7: Health Care Careers.]

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