Acupuncture is a traditional method of treating the balance of energy in the human body known as chi or qi. It is accomplished by inserting needles into various energy points located on the human body and manipulating them. Practitioners believe chi flows along energy pathways called meridians and blockage of this flow causes a variety of illness.
The origins of acupuncture are shrouded in mystery. There is evidence that acupuncture has been in use in China since the Stone Age. How acupuncture emerged is a mystery. One theory posits that it grew from the observation of soldiers who were punctured by arrows being cured of chronic ills. Whatever the origin, the practice of acupuncture has evolved throughout the years, both in terms of theory and practice. For example, stone and bone needles were replaced with metal needles around the 2nd century BCE. As the practice of acupuncture spread from China to Japan, Taiwan and Korea, the theory and methodology developed further. Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century brought the idea of acupuncture to the west, where it was initially treated with mixed skepticism and enthusiasm; while during the same period its use declined in China as it was considered superstitious, irrational and backward.
In the 1950s, acupuncture enjoyed a revival in China, though the theory was rewritten to strip the practice of any spiritual aspect to suit a more political agenda during the Cultural Revolution. After United States President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and witnessed acupuncture treatments, its use spread to the US and soon became widely accepted. Its therapeutic effectiveness remains controversial, but there is substantial evidence that it is useful as an analgesic (pain reducer).
The theory of acupuncture is based on the idea that bodily functions are regulated by an energy called qi which flows through the body. The goal is to correct imbalances in the flow of qi by stimulation of certain spots, by a variety of techniques. The most common method of stimulation involves insertion of thin metal needles, which are then manipulated.
Traditional Chinese medicine distinguishes several kinds of qi, defined by five “cardinal functions”:
1. Actuation (all physical processes, especially circulation of fluids in the body)
2. Warming (the body, especially the limbs)
3. Defense (against external ills)
4. Containment (preventing leakage or excessive emission of body fluids)
5. Transformation (of food, drink, and breath into qi, blood and fluids)
In traditional Chinese medicine, disease is perceived is an imbalance in qi, or disharmony in interactions between the human body and the environment. Treatment is based on which “pattern of disharmony” can be identified. To determine which pattern exists, practitioners will observe and question the patient, and examine things like the color and shape of the tongue, the relative strength of pulse-points, the smell of the breath, the quality of breathing, or the sound of the voice. Traditionally, the practice is highly individualized and based on philosophy or intuition.
Acupuncture has changed somewhat in modern or Western practice. Treatment in traditional Chinese medicine focuses on treatment of the patient, whereas in the West treatment is focused on the disease. Treatment in modern acupuncture still involves taking the pulse on both arms and inspecting the tongue. Needles are still used; and in some cases may be left in the body for substantial periods of time. It can be used to treat various types of pain, neurological problems and stroke rehabilitation.
Acupuncture has diverged in terms of methodology. There are now many related practices that are used for similar effects, including:
Moxibustion: often used alongside acupuncture, moxibustion is the burning of cone-shaped preparations of a plant on or near the skin, often near an acupuncture point; traditionally, it was used to treat chronic diseases.
Fire cupping: an ancient practice in which a local suction is created on the skin using heat or mechanical devices.
Acupressure: a traditional Chinese medical practice that is nearly identical to acupuncture; the difference is that this method involves various bare handed techniques rather than needles.
Electroacupuncture: a technique in which acupuncture needles are attached to a device that generates continuous electrical pulses.
Acutonics: acupuncture using sound instead of needles.
Acupuncture point injection: the injection of various substances (drugs, vitamins, or herbal extracts) into acupuncture points.
Should you give acupuncture a try? Many skeptics claim if acupuncture is effective at all it is merely a placebo effect. However, the World Health Organization recognizes it as effective in treating a number of illnesses, for example migraines. As for risk, the risk of injury due to acupuncture is remote as little as 0.55 per 10,000 patients and usually involves infection and compared to the 4.5 million Americans that visit the emergency room due to adverse effect of prescription drugs is small potatoes indeed.