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What is Acupuncture?
Traditionally, acupuncture is a practice whereby extremely thin needles of differing lengths penetrate the skin as a means of treating a number of potential conditions. There are a number of variant forms of acupuncture. In the practice of electroacupuncture, the needles may or may not be used as in traditional acupuncture; however, in addition, there are a number of very small electrical pulses that are used to stimulate the same points.
Other forms of acupuncture treatments involve sonopuncture, where sound waves are used as opposed to the electrical charges, and moxibustion where the acupuncture points are stimulated using the burning of particular herbs. Another increasingly used form of acupuncture is called acupressure. In this practice there are no needles used and instead the practitioner uses their fingers that may or may not be part of a broader means of treatment that involve massages. In all forms, the procedure, if correctly performed, should be almost entirely painless and is often used as a form of treating pain or nausea that can be a side effect of a number of treatments and conditions.
The Alternative Medicine Foundation suggests that Western medicine explains the effects of acupuncture as resulting from the stimulation of the nervous system which in turn may cause chemicals or hormones to be released, causing beneficial effects. The theories behind Chinese acupuncture, where it is currently used as an anesthetic treatment, are based on a conception of invisible meridians that run through the body, on which the acupuncture points or “acupoints” are found. It is thought that these meridians function as channels of sorts along which an energy or force of life, qi (pronounced “chee” or “kee”) flows. Acupuncture Charts display the twelve primary meridians that run through the human body and are thought to form some type of system that connects organs and networks of organs. Through these theories diseases are understood as imbalances in the energy flow of the body. As a result, the restorative properties of acupuncture treatment are theoretically able to be used in the treatment of any number of ailments of both physical and mental varieties.
Acupuncture and History
According to the American Cancer Society, acupuncture may have originated in China, over two thousand years ago and Chinese Acupuncture to this day constitutes a significant aspect of traditional Chinese medicine. There are a number of Acupuncture Body Points, or “acupoints,” with original Acupuncture Points Maps showing three hundred and sixty-five acupoints. However, over the history of the practice, the number of points increased to an excess of two thousand sites. Although a part of Chinese medicine, in which it is considered to be a common form of treatment for a variety of diseases, it has also become increasingly popular in both North American and Europe as an analgesic treatment. The American Cancer Society notes that by the year 2000 there were in excess of eleven thousand practitioners licensed to perform acupuncture in the United States alone. There are standard for training, licensing and certification in the United States, including the requirement that needles may only be used once and labelled as such in order to ensure that the practice remains hygienic. Presently Medicare in the United States does not cover any form of acupuncture treatments, however some health insurance plans and HMOs do include coverage for these forms of alternative treatments.
Safety of Acupuncture
The American Cancer Society reports that if a trained professional is performing acupuncture treatment that it is safe. There have not been many complications reported, though the lists of potential complications can include dizziness, fainting, local internal bleeding, convulsions, hepatitis B, dermatitis, nerve damage and increased pain. At one point there was also the risk of infection from needles; however, in the United States there are now regulations regarding the sterilization of needles which must be disposed of after a single use. As such infection from traditional acupuncture in the United States is not considered to be a significant safety concern for those considering acupuncture treatment.
In a Reuters Health article of Wednesday June 27, 2007, it has been reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine (issue of June 19, 2007) that although acupuncture can provide benefits with regard to pain relief in those with knee arthritis, a recently released review of research on acupuncture has suggested that some of these beneficial aspects may be due in some part to a placebo effect. The study covered fifteen years and nine clinical trials that saw improvements in the short term for sufferers of pain and stiffness due to knee arthritis.
The trials compared actual acupuncture with a placebo procedure or “sham” acupuncture, concluding that there is insufficient evidence to determine a real difference between the real and placebo therapy. The type of acupuncture used in the trials included the stimulation of Acupuncture Points by needles and electro-acupuncture. The sham versions of the treatments involved, in the former case, non-penetrating needles, and in the latter there were electrodes that involved a simulated electrical stimulation. That the placebo was as effective as the real treatment suggests that the benefits that one might normally associate with acupuncture are much more likely to be a result of the hopeful expectations of those being treated, the placebo effect, than of the effects of the actual treatment. It is also reported by the article that some research did note some short term benefits due to acupuncture, but that in most studies acupuncture only proved better when compared to leaving a patient untreated, that is, without a placebo option in the trial. The conclusions of the article suggest that there still may be potential benefits to using acupuncture in those patients who are suffering from knee arthritis. Overall, given that acupuncture is a safe procedure, it should not be ruled out as a potential treatment option.