General Information

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a Chinese medical treatment which treats patients by manipulating thin, solid needles which have been inserted into acupuncture points in the skin.

History of Acupuncture

Acupuncture originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. The earliest written record of acupuncture is found in The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, dated approximately 200 BCE.

Around ninety works on acupuncture were written in China between the Han Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, and the Emperor Renzong of Song, in 1023, ordered the production of a bronze statuette depicting the meridians and acupuncture points then in use.

Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century were among the first to bring reports of acupuncture to the West. Jacob de Bondt, a Dutch surgeon traveling in Asia, described the practice of acupuncture. The first elaborate Western treatise on acupuncture was published in 1683 by Willem ten Rhijne, a Dutch physician who had worked in Asia for two years.

The greatest exposure in the West came when The New York Times reporter James Reston, who accompanied President Richard Nixon on the visit to China in 1972, received acupuncture treatment in China for post-operative pain after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Reston experienced pain relief from the acupuncture treatment and wrote about it in The New York Times. In 1973 the American Internal Revenue Service allowed acupuncture cost to be deducted as a medical expense.

Traditional Chinese Theory of Acupuncture

The general theory of acupuncture is based on the premise that bodily functions are regulated by an energy called qi (pronounced “chee”) which flows through the body. Traditional Chinese medicine theorizes that there are more than 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body, and that these points connect with 12 main and eight secondary pathways called meridians. These meridians transport Qi throughout the body.

According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, Qi is believed to regulate spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance and to be influenced by the opposing forces of Yin and Yang. Disruptions of this flow of Qi are believed to be responsible for disease.

When Yin and Yang are balanced, they work together with the natural flow of qi to help the body achieve and maintain health. Acupuncture is believed to balance Yin and Yang, keep the normal flow of Qi unblocked and maintain or restore health to the body and mind.

Traditional Chinese medicine practices (including acupuncture, herbs, diet, massage and meditative physical exercise) all are intended to balance Yin and Yang and to improve the flow of Qi.

Western Theory of Acupuncture

Several processes have been proposed to explain acupuncture’s effects, primarily those on pain. Acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system to release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord and brain. These chemicals either change the experience of pain or release other chemicals, such as hormones, that influence the body’s self-regulating systems. The biochemical changes may stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well-being. NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) says there are three main mechanisms for it to work:

  • Conduction of electromagnetic signals: Western scientists have found evidence that acupuncture points are strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. Stimulating points along these pathways through acupuncture enables electromagnetic signals to be relayed at a greater rate than under normal conditions. These signals may start the flow of pain-killing biochemicals, such as endorphins, and of immune system cells to specific sites in the body that are injured or vulnerable to disease.
  • Activation of opioid systems: Research has found that several types of opioids may be released into the central nervous system during acupuncture treatment, thereby reducing pain.
  • Changes in brain chemistry, sensation and involuntary body functions: Studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones. Acupuncture also has been documented to affect the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes whereby a person’s blood pressure, blood flow and body temperature are regulated.

Effects of Acupuncture

Research shows that acupuncture can be beneficial in treating a variety of health conditions, according to NCCAM.

According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) Consensus Statement on Acupuncture: “Promising results have emerged, for example, showing efficacy of acupuncture in adult postoperative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting and in postoperative dental pain. There are other situations such as addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma, in which acupuncture may be useful as an adjunct treatment or an acceptable alternative or be included in a comprehensive management program. Further research is likely to uncover additional areas where acupuncture interventions will be useful.”

Currently, one of the main reasons Americans seek acupuncture treatment is to relieve chronic pain, especially from conditions such as arthritis or lower back disorders.

Safety of Acupuncture

There is general agreement that acupuncture is safe when administered by well-trained practitioners using sterile needles. Because acupuncture needles penetrate the skin, it is an invasive procedures with rare injuries. And in America, needles are required by law to be sterile, disposable and used only once. Major adverse events are exceedingly rare and are usually associated with poorly trained unlicensed acupuncturists. Estimates of adverse effects due to acupuncture range from 671 to 1,137 per 10,000 treatments. The majority of adverse effects reported are minor, mainly slight haemorrhage (2.9%), haematoma (2.2%), and dizziness (1%).

The use of acupuncture has been tentatively endorsed by the United States National Institutes of Health, the National Health Service of the United Kingdom, the World Health Organization, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Development of Acupuncture in the United States

In the past two decades, acupuncture has grown in popularity in the United States. A Harvard University study estimates that Americans make more than five million visits per year to acupuncture practitioners.

Practitioners who specialize in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine are called as “licensed acupuncturists”, or L.Ac.’s, which signifies that the holder is board-certified by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). Twenty-three states require certification, according to that body.

In 1996, the United States Food and Drug Administration changed the status of acupuncture needles to Class II medical devices, meaning that acupuncture is regarded as safe and effective when used appropriately by licensed practitioners. As of 2004, nearly 50% of Americans who were enrolled in employer health insurance plans were covered for acupuncture treatments.

The report from a Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture held at the NIH states 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.



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