Acupuncture: what is it?

Acupuncture is an essential component of traditional Chinese medicine and has been practiced in the Orient for over 2,000 years. Although acupuncture was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, it has only recently caught the attention of North American health professionals.

Acupuncture involves inserting very thin needles into acupuncture points. These points are arranged along vertical lines in the body called meridians. One or many acupuncture points may be used during a treatment. The choice of points depends on the condition being treated.

The 2 most commonly used acupuncture techniques are traditional Chinese acupuncture and anatomical acupuncture, also known as Western acupuncture.

Traditional Chinese acupuncture

According to Chinese philosophy, disease is a sign that the body's equilibrium (the yin and the yang) is not in balance. Acupuncture points are chosen to rebalance the yin and yang.

Meridians are thought to be pathways for vital energy flow throughout the body. The acupuncture points on the meridians access the meridians. Energy flowing through the meridians is known as chi.

An excess or deficiency of chi is thought to result in pain and disease. Thus, blockage of chi's circulation can cause pain and illness. Insertion of needles at the acupuncture points frees the blockage and promotes normal flow of chi.

The acupuncturist may heat the needles. This is said to increase energy in the body. The needle may be stimulated by hand or with a small electrical current.

Western acupuncture

In Western acupuncture, selection of acupuncture points is based on a Western type of diagnosis.

Since it has become apparent that all the acupuncture points are located close to important nerves, Western acupuncture is used primarily to treat painful conditions. To do this, acupuncture points are selected that are close to the nerves supplying the painful area. It is thought that stimulating the nerves in this way enables the body to produce its own painkillers, called endorphins.

Most Western-trained physicians usually incorporate both traditional Chinese acupuncture and Western techniques in their treatments. Research is showing that acupuncture may be helpful for certain types of pain (e.g., low back pain, osteoarthritis of the knee) but more research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture for other conditions associated with pain.