Acupuncture is just one of several therapies that constitute traditional Chinese medicine. The ancient view holds that the basis of good health is the harmonious balance of qi, or vital energy, in the body.
According to this paradigm, energy moves through the body along 14 main pathways, called meridians, and when the flow along one or several of the meridians is obstructed, the result may be disease or injury.
By stimulating key points in the body - most commonly with needles - an acupuncturist seeks to restore balance to the normal energy flow and, consequently, to relieve pain or treat disease.
Acupuncturists believe that imbalances in qi are the root of disease processes and that acupuncture helps impose balance on qi via needle insertion at specific points on or near the meridians.
Although acupuncture has been practiced for 5,000 years, until recently, nearly all the evidence of its effectiveness was anecdotal. In the last decade, however, research has revealed physiologic mechanisms for some of its effects.
For example, it is well documented that the stimulation of acupuncture points affects both central and peripheral nervous systems. It triggers the release of endorphins and enkephalins - chemicals that have pain-relieving properties similar to those of opiates. More recent research suggests that it may also trigger the release of certain neural hormones, including serotonin.
Many theories as to how acupuncture works have been entertained, but none by itself can explain the multiple analgesic, anti-inflammatory, sedative and regenerative effects of acupuncture.
During an acupuncture treatment, tiny one- or two-inch needles are inserted at selected acupuncture points. Acupuncturists recognize nearly 400 of these special locations on each side of the body, and another 250 to 300 "extra-meridian" points outside the meridian lines.
The needles typically are twirled clockwise or counter-clockwise to evoke patient response and to intensify or change the needle tip's polarity. According to some experts, this is based on the concept that the needle is a metal conductor, with opposite polarities at the tip and handle.
Manual or electrical manipulation of the needle or the application of heat or cold to the handle will change the polarity and direction of the current. Needles properly placed at selected points allow the current to circulate between the needle tips.
Patients generally complain of little or no discomfort from the needles. A common introduction is a feeling of heaviness or numbness at the insertion sites.
A course of therapy generally requires 10 or more treatments with costs averaging about 50 per session. Treatments are performed over several days or weeks.
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