A Guide to Acupuncture

How this burgeoning alternative treatment can alleviate pain, depression and more

Long considered an "alternative" or "complementary" treatment in the United States, the traditional Chinese medical practice of acupuncture is quickly becoming an accepted practice. As the importance of balance and energy flow within the human body becomes better understood (thanks to a growing number of yogis and holistic healers), more and more chronic pain sufferers are turning to acupuncture to check their meridians and redirect energy. But is it right for you?

Acupuncture has been practiced by the Chinese for more than 5,000 years, yet it has become a popular treatment for medical woes here in the West only since 1973, when acupuncturists first became licensed in the United States. This form of holistic healing is commonly referred to as "alternative" or "complementary" by Americans and is often used when Western treatment has not achieved the desired results. As the practice becomes more popular in the West, many health insurance companies have started to cover treatments. However, the effectiveness of acupuncture remains controversial among many conventional medical clinicians, practitioners and researchers.

What is acupuncture?

Simply put, acupuncture is about energy and balance. The precepts of ancient Chinese medicine dictate that the human body requires balanced "life energy" in order to function properly and encourage its own healing capabilities. That energy flows through distinct pathways known as meridians.

An energy imbalance in the meridians is considered to be the root cause of pain, illness and ailment. One's energy balance can be measured and corrected by way of inserting and manipulating small filiform needles into acupuncture points along those meridians, each of which corresponds to specific organs, systems and body functions.

How effective is acupuncture?

To those who are used to popping pills and undergoing surgery, the idea of inserting tiny needles all over the body to treat chronic back pain may seem a little farfetched, but a growing population of yogis in the United States recommend the practice highly.

"Ancient Chinese medicine, along with some recent schools of thought, believes that our bodies are energy centers,” says Tina Panati, a yoga instructor in Baltimore, Maryland. “That's not too hard to believe if you walk on a carpet in socks and touch a metal doorknob."

More and more people — and even pets — are benefiting from acupuncture and are pleased with the results. With the holistic approach to healing, it is important to put in the positive energy you'd like to receive. Be open-minded, and welcome new ideas and energy.

What does acupuncture treat?

Some of the most common ailments that bring folks to an acupuncturist include chronic pain, nausea, headaches, sprains, strains, certain neurological disorders, numbness and tingling. In recent years, acupuncture has become a rather common aid to smokers struggling to quit and to men and women suffering from depression.

What should I expect?

The acupuncture experience should be comfortable and relaxing; it's nothing to be afraid of. Treatment frequency and duration vary depending on the nature and severity of the ailment. For some, a single typical treatment is sufficient. Chronic conditions may call for a series of treatments in conjunction with certain dietary suggestions.

The depth of the needles inserted also varies depending on which acupuncture point is selected, the patient’s age and body type. On average, the needles are inserted from ¼ to 1 inch into the skin. It sounds painful, but it isn't when done properly. The only sensation you should feel is a slight electric "zing" and a tingling that indicates that the desired point on one of your meridians has been reached.

How should I prepare?

In order to get the most out of your treatment, it's a good idea to wear loose clothing and little to no jewelry or tight stockings. And, because acupuncture is based around and affects your circulation, before treatment it's best to avoid caffeinated drinks, such as coffee and soda, as well as substances such as alcohol.

As with any other treatment, it is important to tell your practitioner about allergies or any medications you may be taking. And if something doesn't feel right, speak up. Remember, acupuncture requires communication not only between organ, circulation and regulatory systems within the body, but between doctor and patient as well.

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