Michigan Medical Acupuncture Association
     
 

Introduction to Acupuncture

Acupuncture is among the oldest healing practices in the world. As part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or traditional Asian Medicine (TAM) it is a whole medical system that originated in China and spread to other Asian countries and beyond. It is based on the concept that disease results from a disruption in the flow of chi and imbalance in the forces of yin and yang. Practices such as herbs, meditation, massage, and acupuncture seek to aid healing by restoring the yin-yang balance and the flow of chi. Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body by a variety of techniques, including the insertion of thin metal needles though the skin. It is intended to remove blockages in the flow of chi and restore and maintain health. Acupuncture aims to restore and maintain health through the stimulation of specific points on the body. In the United States, where practitioners incorporate healing traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries, acupuncture is considered part of complementary and alternative medicine.

Key Points

  • Acupuncture has been practiced in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years.
  • Scientists are studying the efficacy of acupuncture for a wide range of conditions.
  • Relatively few complications have been reported from the use of acupuncture. However, acupuncture can cause potentially serious side effects if not delivered properly by a qualified practitioner.

About Acupuncture

The term "acupuncture" describes a family of procedures involving the stimulation of anatomical points on the body using a variety of techniques. The acupuncture technique that has been most often studied scientifically involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation.

According to TCM/TAM, health is achieved by maintaining the body in a "balanced state"; disease is due to an internal imbalance of yin and yang. This imbalance leads to blockage in the flow of chi which in traditional Chinese medicine is the vital energy or life force proposed to regulate a person's spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health and to be influenced by the opposing forces of yin and yang. Chi can be unblocked, according to TCM/TAM by using acupuncture at certain points on the body that connect with chi meridians. Sources vary on the number of meridians, with numbers ranging from 14 to 20. One commonly cited source describes meridians as 14 main channels "connecting the body in a web like interconnecting matrix" of at least 2,000 acupuncture points.

Acupuncture became better known in the United States in 1971, when New York Times reporter James Reston wrote about how doctors in China used needles to ease his pain after surgery. American practices of acupuncture incorporate medical traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries.

Acupuncture Use in the United States

The report from a Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1997 stated that acupuncture is being "widely" practiced-by thousands of physicians, dentists, acupuncturists, and other practitioners-for relief or prevention of pain and for various other health conditions. According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey-the largest and most comprehensive survey of complementary health care practitioners - an estimated 8.2 million U.S. adults had ever used acupuncture, and an estimated 2.1 million U.S. adults had used acupuncture in the previous year.

Acupuncture Side Effects and Risks

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles for use by licensed practitioners, requiring that needles be manufactured and labeled according to certain standards. For example, the FDA requires that needles be sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.

Relatively few complications from the use of acupuncture have been reported to the FDA, in light of the millions of people treated each year and the number of acupuncture needles used. Still, complications have resulted from inadequate sterilization of needles and from improper delivery of treatments. Practitioners should use a new set of disposable needles taken from a sealed package for each patient and should swab treatment sites with alcohol or another disinfectant before inserting needles. When not delivered properly, acupuncture can cause serious adverse effects, including infections and punctured organs.

Status of Acupuncture Research

There have been many studies on acupuncture's potential health benefits for a wide range of conditions. Summarizing earlier research, the 1997 NIH Consensus Statement on Acupuncture found that, overall, results were hard to interpret because of problems with the size and design of the studies.

In the years since the Consensus Statement was issued, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has funded extensive research to advance scientific understanding of acupuncture. Some recent NCCAM-supported studies have looked at:

  • Whether acupuncture works for specific health conditions such as chronic low-back pain, headache, and osteoarthritis of the knee
  • How acupuncture might work, such as what happens in the brain during acupuncture treatment
  • Ways to better identify and understand the potential neurological properties of meridians and acupuncture points
  • Methods and instruments for improving the quality of acupuncture research

Finding a Qualified Practitioner

Health care providers such as licensed medical physicians should be a resource for referral to acupuncturists, and some conventional medical practitioners-including physicians and dentists practice acupuncture. In Michigan only medically supervised acupuncturists are practicing legally.

Do not rely on a diagnosis of disease by an acupuncture practitioner who is not also a licensed medical physician. If you have received a diagnosis from a doctor, you may wish to ask your doctor whether acupuncture might help.

What To Expect from Acupuncture Visits

During your first office visit, the practitioner may ask you at length about your health condition, lifestyle, and behavior. The practitioner will want to obtain a complete picture of your treatment needs and behaviors that may contribute to your condition. Inform the acupuncturist about all treatments or medications you are taking and all medical conditions you have.

Acupuncture needles are metallic, solid, and hair-thin. People experience acupuncture differently, but most feel no or minimal pain as the needles are inserted. Some people feel energized by treatment, while others feel relaxed. Improper needle placement, movement of the patient, or a defect in the needle can cause soreness and pain during treatment. This is why it is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner.

Treatment may take place over a period of several weeks or more.

References

Acupuncture. Natural Standard Database Web site. Accessed at http://www.naturalstandard.com on June 28, 2007.

Barnes PM, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin RL. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults: United States, 2002. CDC Advance Data Report #343. 2004.

Berman BM, Lao L, Langenberg P, et al. Effectiveness of acupuncture as adjunctive therapy in osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized, controlled trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2004;141(12):901-910.

Eisenberg DM, Cohen MH, Hrbek A, et al. Credentialing complementary and alternative medical providers. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2002;137(12):965-973.

Ernst E. Acupuncture - a critical analysis. Journal of Internal Medicine. 2006;259(2):125 - 137.

Kaptchuk, TJ. Acupuncture: theory, efficacy, and practice. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2002;136(5):374-383.

Lao L. Safety issues in acupuncture. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 1996;2(1):27-31.

MacPherson H, Thomas K. Short-term reactions to acupuncture - a cross-sectional survey of patient reports. Acupuncture in Medicine. 2005;23(3):112-120.

National Cancer Institute. Acupuncture (PDQ). National Cancer Institute Web site. Accessed at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/acupuncture on August 16, 2007.

National Institutes of Health Consensus Panel. Acupuncture: National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference Statement. National Institutes of Health Web site. Accessed at http://consensus.nih.gov/1997/1997acupuncture107html.htm on June 22, 2007.

Reston J. Now, about my operation in Peking; Now, let me tell you about my appendectomy in Peking. New York Times. July 26, 1971:1.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Acupuncture needles no longer investigational. FDA Consumer. 1996;30(5). Also available at http://www.fda.gov/fdac/departs/596_upd.html.

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