Practiced by Chinese healers for more than 5,000 years, acupuncture is a type of holistic medicine designed to facilitate the proper flow of Qi (ch'i), the life-giving energy that travels through the body's pathways (meridians). By helping Qi to move unimpeded through the meridians, acupuncture provides nourishment to all of the body's cells, muscles, organs, glands and tissues. During an acupuncture session, fine needles are inserted into the body at specific points along the meridians to break up blockages and restore a full, healthy flow of Qi.
Acupuncture focuses on improving the body as a whole, rather than simply treating a particular symptom. It is often used to provide pain relief for certain medical conditions or issues, including the following:
Acupuncture is sometimes also used to help stroke victims overcome paralysis, and problems with swallowing and speech.
Before starting the session, the acupuncturist usually examines the parts of a patient's body that are painful, and ask questions about current symptoms and existing health conditions. This evaluation, which is designed to ensure that the patient has the best-possible treatment outcome, can take up to an hour to complete.
During acupuncture treatment, needles are inserted, depending on the patient's symptoms, into the skin at targeted areas and depths. Only sterile, single-use needles (usually between five to 20 per session) are used to avoid potential infection and ensure the patient's safety. Once the needles have been placed, the practitioner gently moves or twirls them; needles may also be heated by electrical impulses. Needles are kept in place for five to 20 minutes, with patients typically undergoing a total of 12 treatments on a weekly or biweekly basis.
Acupuncture is considered safe in the hands of an experienced professional, which is why it is important for a patient to research the background of the acupuncturist before undergoing treatment. A patient who is pregnant, or has a pacemaker or bleeding disorder, has a greater risk of experiencing complications from acupuncture, and may not be a good candidate.
Although rare, risks and possible complications of acupuncture include the following:
Results of acupuncture largely depend on the individual patient, and it is often combined with more conventional treatments, such as prescription drugs, to maximize results. If symptoms do not improve within a few weeks of receiving acupuncture, further treatments may be necessary.