Acupuncture medicine was developed in China approximately 5,000 years ago. The practice quickly spread across Asia, and is now common throughout the world. Acupuncture is applied to anatomical points on the body to stimulate healing and provide pain relief. The most common practice involves inserting thin, hair-like needles, though other methods include hand pressure, ultrasound and electric stimulation applied to the various acupuncture points.
The ancient Chinese believed that there were two opposing forces in the body, the yin and the yang. The yin was the slow, passive force while the yang was excited and active. If these two forces were out of balance, the vital energy, or qi, was disrupted, causing pain and illness. By stimulating certain points on the body, the balance could be restored, promoting healing. Ancient acupuncturists first used hand pressure, and then developed needles made from bone, stone and metals, such as silver and gold.
Modern research into the effectiveness of acupuncture medicine indicates that this treatment method stimulates nerves and connective tissue, which increases the blood flow and activates natural endorphins. The treatment also seems to alter the release pattern of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, reducing pain. Research studies can be difficult, since it is hard to find a placebo substitute for acupuncture to use on a control group, yet results are positive enough that many medical practitioners recommend acupuncture as an alternate treatment for pain and post-surgical or post-chemo nausea.
The most common form of acupuncture medicine uses thin needles which are inserted at specific points in the body and left for 5 to 20 minutes. These needles are only placed deep enough to prevent falling out, and the experience is virtually painless. Electro-acupuncture, an enhanced version developed in China in 1934, uses small electric charges. These charges can be applied to the needles or directly to the skin if needles are not employed. This method provides greater stimulation, but should be used with caution if the patient has a heart condition.
Sonopuncture is a newer method of acupuncture medicine which focuses on the same anatomical points, but uses an ultrasound device in place of needles. The cylindrical devise delivers a high frequency beam of 1 megahertz, or 1 million vibrations per second. The sound in applied to each point for 15 – 45 seconds, and penetrates 2.5 to 3 inches (6 – 8 cm). Acupressure, which applies hand pressure instead of needles, is the oldest method and is still used for self-treatment and by some therapists.
Acupuncture medicine has very few recorded negative side effects if administered by a trained practitioner. The most important precaution is to use only new, sterile needles; a requirement in areas where acupuncturists are licensed. Most European countries and the majority of the states in the US have licensing requirements. The Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec also regulate the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.
According to the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture medicine has been proven effective for treating various kinds of pain, including fibromyalgia, and providing relief for post-operative and post-chemo nausea. The American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians recommend acupuncture as an option for treating lower back pain. The World Health Organization is even more expansive, recognizing acupuncture medicine as an alternative treatment for digestive, respiratory, neurological, urinary, menstrual and reproductive problems.