The facts

Acupuncture is an important therapeutic component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Among the beliefs central to TCM is the balance between two opposing life forces, yin and yang. Yin represents a cold, slow, and passive energy, and yang represents its opposite - hot, excitable, and active. When in balance, the two energies support health and wellness. Imbalanced yin and yang, on the other hand, is believed to block the flow of vital energy, or qi (pronounced "chee"), which is believed to contribute to disease.

To unblock qi, acupuncturists insert hair-thin metallic needles into the body at strategic "trigger points" along networks of energy called meridians. Practitioners work along some 14 to 20 meridians connecting approximately 2,000 acupuncture points.

A visit to an acupuncturist may involve an in-depth interview about your health and lifestyle. An acupuncturist would gather information to design a treatment plan suited to your particular health and wellness needs. Treatment often entails the insertion of 4 to 10 needles at a time and lasts 10 to 30 minutes. Some people leave treatment feeling energized, while others feel calm and relaxed.

A word of caution

Millions of people undergo acupuncture every year, and the incidence of complications is relatively low. But poorly administered needles can cause soreness, infection, and, rarely, punctured organs.

Check an acupuncturist's credentials, as this will at least tell you that they have met standards of training, practice, hygiene, and safety. In some provinces, the practice of acupuncture is regulated. Needles should be sterile and disposable, and skin should be swabbed with alcohol or similar disinfectant prior to insertion of needles.

Be sure to tell your health care providers about any acupuncture treatments you have undergone.