The Basics: Acupuncture is an ancient type of traditional Chinese medicine that involves inserting sterile, ultra-thin–about the diameter of a strand of hair–stainless steel needles into the skin to restore and maintain good health. When you’re ill or experiencing physical or emotional symptoms, acupuncturists stimulate points to unblock qi, our vital life energy, and restore balance to the body.
Qi flows through the body along pathways called meridians, which map out a series of more than 1,000 acupoints located below the surface of the skin. These points correspond to specific meridians and to the overall flow of life energy.
Acupuncture needles, which are regulated for safety and sterility by the Food and Drug Administration, are so thin that most acupuncture patients report little or no pain. Depending on your health concern, a typical hour-long acupuncture session could result in immediate relief of your symptoms, or you might need a series of treatments. Weekly treatments are often required to treat a chronic condition, according to Carla Waldron, M.D., an acupuncturist and gynecologist.
Scientific Support: While many studies suggest that acupuncture is an effective medical treatment, the research is sometimes thought to fall short when it comes to explaining exactly why the therapy works. “With acupuncture, you have to back off your medical training and be open to other [traditional Chinese medicine] concepts like qi, spirit, and yin and yang,” says Waldron. “The longer I practice, the more I accept these concepts that explain healing in a way that you would not necessarily get from a strict allopathic [conventional medicine] or scientific standpoint.”
That said, the research is promising. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, a 2010 study observed the perception of pain in the body with and without acupuncture treatment. Researchers saw a significant reduction in the activation of brain areas that register pain in patients who received acupuncture.
And a 2009 study showed that migraine sufferers treated with acupuncture experienced fewer migraines compared to those given painkillers. However, this study, along with several others, also found that patients treated with sham acupuncture needles—merely pressed against the skin or inserted incorrectly into acupoints—produced similar benefits to actual acupuncture treatment.
Complement to Western Medicine: While conventional medicine might tackle a condition like acne with oral or topical treatments, acupuncture would view the skin condition as a disorder caused by a blocked meridian. Acupuncture and Western therapies can be used in tandem to treat a health condition and may offer a greater relief of symptoms when combined, says Waldron.
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