Acupuncture: A Tradition and a Science


What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a technique incorporated from China, Japan, and Korea. Slender needles are inserted through the skin along particular points in order to treat pain and dysfunction. Usually 5 to 20 needles are used at a time. A brief stinging or tingling sensation may occur at the puncture site, followed by a dull ache once the needle has reached the correct depth, although some people don’t feel anything at all. The needles are left in the body between 5 and 30 minutes. The practitioner may gently twirl or move the needles during treatment. There is little to no discomfort when the needles are removed.

History of acupuncture

Although acupuncture procedures have been recorded as early as 100 BCE, it didn’t become popularized in the U.S. until 1971. Acupuncture theory began on the principle that our energy flow, called qi, moves throughout the body along twelve meridians. These meridians can be accessed through acupuncture points that represent channels wherein needles can be inserted in order to modify the qi’s flow.

How does acupuncture work?

Although early Chinese physicians believed acupuncture maintained a balance within the qi, modern neuroscience has shown that acupuncture stimulates nerves, muscle, and connective tissue, thus increasing blood flow and triggering the body to activate pain-suppressing receptors. Acupuncture may also activate the body’s natural opioid system, which aids in relaxation. Acupuncture also helps reduce inflammation, thereby managing pain and swelling.

What types of acupuncture are available?

The traditional method of acupuncture uses thin needles, but alternatives are also available. A Japanese style of acupuncture involves tapping or stroking the skin with a needle versus pushing it into the skin. An example is the pediatric style of acupuncture called Shōnishin.

Sometimes a low electrical pulse is sent through the needles, a method called electroacupuncture. Other times the needles might be heated with a heat lamp or a “moxa stick.” Other healing techniques may be used simultaneously, such as Chinese cupping.

Did you know…?

A “moxa stick” is roughly the shape and size of a cigar. Once the acupuncture needle is inserted into the skin, the ignited moxa stick heats it.

What conditions does acupuncture treat?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) list various conditions where acupuncture has been effective, such as migraine, neck pain, lower back pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, morning sickness, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, peptic ulcer, knee pain, urinary tract infections, epidemic hemorrhagic fever, sciatica pain, and dysentery.

Evidence also shows acupuncture may help lower blood pressure, reduce fibromyalgia pain, and relieve dizziness, palpitations, and tinnitus.

The benefits of acupuncture

Acupuncture is a safe method of controlling pain and may be beneficial to those who can’t take pain-relieving medication. It also has few side effects and can be combined with other types of treatments.

Possible side effects

Rare side effects include nerve injury, bleeding, bruising, dizziness, and fainting. Patients should let their practitioners know if they’re pregnant, since pressure to certain acupuncture points may be damaging to the fetus or cause premature delivery.


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