While the sight of needles makes some people squeamish, millions of others look forward to having them stuck into their skin every day. Acupuncture, the practice of inserting fine needles of varying lengths into the skin, is a safe, popular and reportedly effective way to relieve pain and elevate mood. It’s used for any number of health issues, from menstrual cramps to dental pain to drug addiction.
Originating in China thousands of years ago, acupuncture is believed to balance the energy or life force””qi or chi (chee)””that flows through the body along particular pathways called meridians. Chinese medicine practitioners believe poor health is the result of blocked or unbalanced energy in the body; acupuncture corrects the balance, bringing good health.
Western medicine researchers tend to believe that acupuncture benefits are the result of stimulating nerves, muscles and connective tissues, which boosts the release of the body’s natural painkillers and increases blood flow. There’s currently little scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of acupuncture.
Either way, acupuncture has risen dramatically in popularity over the past few decades and is listed as a top alternative therapy chosen by Americans, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. An estimated 3.1 million adults and 150,000 children used acupuncture in 2007.
During an acupuncture session, the practitioner will perform an initial examination, which may last up to 60 minutes. He or she will ask questions about your health, assess areas of pain in your body, and study your face, tongue and pulse. Be sure to tell the practitioner about any health conditions you might have or other treatments (medical or alternative) you’re currently using.
Because the needles are very thin, the insertion process causes very little discomfort. The practitioner may manipulate or move the needles around, or apply heat or mild electric pulses to the needles. You’ll simply lie still and relax during the treatment, which will last 15 to 30 minutes. The needles will be removed, and you’ll be able to go about your day. Note that multiple sessions are often required, anywhere from six to 12 of them over the course of a few months.
To find an acupuncturist, first check with your health insurance company, as some companies now cover alternative treatments. Your physician may be able to recommend someone as well. If not, check the Internet. Acufinder.com is one site that allows you to search for an acupuncturist by zip code.