Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that's been used to treat medical problems for more than 2,000 years, and now its use is becoming mainstream in Western medicine.
It's based on the Chinese belief that energy called qi flows through energy pathways in the body called meridians. When qi flows freely, the body is balanced and healthy, but an unbalance can cause disease. Each meridian corresponds to an organ and can be accessed and stimulated by needles at precise points where it comes close to the surface of the skin.
In recent years, acupuncture has become more accepted in the Western world, and more doctors and other health professionals are turning to it to relieve chronic pain, allergies, and numerous other ailments. Studies show that acupuncture is effective in treating a wide list of medical conditions. They include:
• Chronic pain: A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine analyzed 29 trials which investigated the effectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain and found it offered relief from pain stemming from chronic headaches, backaches, and arthritis. The results, the authors wrote, "provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option," wrote the authors, which included researchers with Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that acupuncture both reduced pain and improved joint function by 40 percent in people with osteoarthritis of the knee.
• Hypertension: A study published in Circulation studied 160 patients with mild to moderate hypertension who were divided into two groups. One received real acupuncture, and the other received a sham procedure using needles, but not in the precise points used in traditional acupuncture. At the end of six weeks, the patients receiving actual acupuncture showed a significant decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
A study published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine found that acupuncture was as effective as a prescription medication in lowering blood pressure, and another study, published in the Journal of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, found that 96 percent of hypertensive patients improved when treated with acupuncture.
•Insomnia: A 2009 analysis of 46 randomized trials published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that acupuncture was effective in treating insomnia. A recent German study found that three to five sessions of acupuncture at weekly intervals helped sleep disorders — both in patients who had trouble falling asleep and those who had problems remaining asleep.
•Depression: Researchers at the School of Chinese Medicine at the University of Hong Kong used electroacupuncture on 73 patients who had suffered from depression for several years. (Electroacupuncture is a form of acupuncture that sends a mild electrical current between pairs of acupuncture needles.) Half the patients received nine acupuncture treatments to seven spots on their heads over a period of three weeks. While the other half had needles inserted into their heads, the needles didn't stimulate acupuncture points. At the end of the study, depression scores dropped significantly in the group receiving electroacupuncture in comparison to the placebo group. An earlier study done at the University of Arizona found that women who were diagnosed with depression were helped by a series of treatments.
Acupuncture works, say experts, by stimulating brain centers responsible for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for helping regulate mood.
• Cancer: Several studies conducted with both healthy subjects and those suffering from cancer have shown that acupuncture increases immune-enhancing NK-cells, interferon-gama, and interleukine-2 (IL-2). Other studies have shown acupuncture to be effective in relieving the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.
• Allergies: A recent placebo-controlled German study involved 422 patients with seasonal allergies. The results, which were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that an eight-week course of acupuncture reduced the severity of symptoms in 71 percent of study participants, and allergy sufferers were able to cut back on antihistamines.
Acupuncture is usually safe, but the Mayo Clinic warns that it can be risky in some cases:
• Bleeding disorders. If you have a bleeding disorder or if you're taking blood thinners, you have a higher risk of bleeding or bruising from the needles.
• Pacemakers. If electrical pulses are applied to the needles, they can interfere with a pacemaker's operation.
• Pregnancy. Stimulating certain acupuncture points can stimulate labor, which could cause premature delivery.
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