Acupuncture originated in China more than 5,000 years ago and gradually spread across the entire Asian continent and to the West. It is believed to be the longest continuously practiced form of medicine in the world. In the United States, acupuncture’s use has been on the rise since James Reston’s landmark article describing his experience with postsurgical pain and acupuncture, which was published
in the New York Times in 1971.
According to this medical philosophy, balanced health is determined by a flow of chi (pronounced chee), the vital life energy that animates all living beings. Chi flows to all parts of the body through 14 major energy pathways or meridians, 12 of which correspond to organs in the body. Chinese medicine attributes disease to an excess or deficiency of chi in different parts of the body, creating an imbalance. This imbalance can be caused by many factors, including heat, cold, dampness, emotions, diet, or exercise. Acupuncture tries to rebalance the flow of chi. In Western medical terms, chi may relate to the release of endorphins, the pain reliever naturally made by the brain, which has a calming effect.
A visit to an acupuncturist begins with a thorough medical history. Then the acupuncturist will perform a complete physical examination, taking note of the color of the skin, body language, and the tone of voice. The tongue is examined for color, the presence of a coating, or other irregularities that are believed to reflect overall health. Acupuncturists also focus on the body’s pulse, which is felt at six locations since qualities of the pulse also reveal the balance and flow of chi.
Treatment begins by inserting sterile, hair-thin needles at selected points along the energy meridians. These needles alter the flow of chi by stimulating the specific points or by removing blockages. Acupuncturists often use additional modalities to stimulate acupuncture points, including heat, twirling of the needles, and electrical stimulation.
There are several types of acupuncture, each of which has proven to be effective.
1. Traditional Chinese medicine: favored in China and used in conjunction with herbal medicine
2. Medical acupuncture: performed by a traditional Western physician, which may incorporate other aspects of Western medicine
3. Japanese meridian acupuncture: uses thinner needles, which are placed more superficially
4. Five elements acupuncture: takes into account psychological components that might influence illness
5. Auricular (ear) acupuncture: based on the belief that the entire body can be treated by stimulating specific points on the outer ear.