An Accidental Discovery

According to legend, an ancient Chinese soldier developed an illness that his physicians could not cure. The soldier was later struck with an arrow in battle, receiving a superficial wound. The wound healed, and oddly, so did his illness.

Intrigued, Chinese medicine doctors began recording the places where stabbing wounds produced improbable healing. Their observations became the basis of acupuncture and its offshoots: acupressure, which uses finger pressure instead of needles; shiatsu, a Japanese massage therapy; and reflexology, acupressure massage of the feet or hands.

Not surprisingly, qi is central to acupuncture. It circulates around the body along meandering pathways called meridians, each linked to a particular organ network like qi itself, the meridians are invisible and cannot be found by dissection.

Oriental medicine doctors recognize 12 meridians that pass close to the surface of the skin at tender spots called men, meaning “gates” but translated as “points.” At these spots, insertion of needles strengthens deficient qi or disperses congested qi.

Depending which acupuncture “school” you ascribe to, the number of acupuncture points around the body can range from 360 to 2,000. In practice, most acupuncturists use less than 150. Many of the points have poetic names such as Elegant Mansion or Sea of Tranquillity.

Acupuncture points are plentiful in the ears, hands, and feet, where meridians converge. Some practitioners specialize in performing acupuncture on one specific body part. For example, those who engage in ear acupuncture are called auriculotherapists, while those who focus on the feet or hands are called reflexologists.

Traditional Chinese acupuncturists supplement needling with a heat treatment called moxibustion, which involves burning the medicinal herb moxa (Chinese mugwort). Powdered mugwort is shaped into small cones similar to incense. It may be burned directly on the skin over acupuncture points, on a thin layer of soybean paste on the point, on a slice of gingerroot, or on acupuncture needles themselves.

“Moxibustion is invigorating;’ Dr. Korngold explains. “It’s used to treat conditions involving Cold or deficiency of qi.” Some acupuncturists have replaced moxibustion with low-voltage electric current, especially for the treatment of pain.

An enormous number of studies have proven acupuncture to be a remarkably effective alternative therapy for an array of conditions, including osteoarthritis, migraine, nausea, menstrual cramps, and depression. Acupuncture has even been used effectively for the treatment of alcoholism.

What to Expect

A good acupuncturist generally gets results in 6 to 12 sessions. Depending on the severity of the problem, treatment might begin as frequently as once or twice a day. Continued treatment typically takes place once or twice a week, then once or twice a month, with periodic “tune-ups” after that.

Does acupuncture hurt? “Rarely,” says acupuncture researcher George A. Ulett, M.D., Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. The needles are very fine, and insertion typically feels no worse than a little pinch followed by numbness, warmth, tingling, heaviness, or a dull ache.

Many people who’ve undergone acupuncture say they experience relaxation, mood elevation, and a dreamy sense of well­being during their treatment sessions. Afterward, some people feel energized, while others feel drowsy. Still others report a transient increase in symptoms. This, Chinese physicians say, is a sign that the body is marshaling its energy to overcome the problem.

Is acupuncture safe? “Very,” Dr. Ulett says, “assuming that the practitioner uses sterile needles.” His opinion was recently corroborated by Arne ]ohan Norheim, an acupuncturist at the University of Tromso Medical School in Norway, who searched the world medical literature for reports of harm from acupuncture. The results: 193 mishaps-remarkably few considering the millions of acupuncture treatments each year. The most common adverse effect was infection caused by the use of nonsterile needles. Make sure that your acupuncturist uses sterilized or disposable needles.

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