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Developed over the course of millennia, acupuncture is part of a healing system known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Legend has it that in ancient times a warrior was struck with an arrow during battle, but instead of feeling pain, he felt relief — leading to the concept of healing through penetration or pressure on specific points. That may or may not be the case, but archeologists have uncovered fine stone needles in China dating back to the Neolithic Era — more than five thousand years ago — suggesting that acupuncture or acupressure was practiced.
How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture seeks to restore balance to the body, mind and spirit, which are integrated and interconnected. Each body part has not just physical, but also emotional and spiritual significance. For example, the kidneys are associated with will power, and the liver with hope or despair. By stimulating points on the body associated with those organs, practitioners seek to increase or decrease their functioning — whatever is needed to bring the whole body into harmony.
Is it effective?
According to TCM, pain and illness are the result of an imbalance or blockage of energy (ch’i). Ch’i moves through meridians — pathways along the body that link different body parts. The result of blockage can be stagnation and buildup of ch’i in some areas, or deprivation of ch’i in others, causing symptoms of illness.
Researchers have used X-rays and CAT scans in an attempt to detect or prove the movement of ch’i along meridians, to no avail. (They cannot use an MRI — magnetic resonance imaging — because current practitioners use metal needles, not stone.) However, research has also shown that acupuncture can be remarkably effective at treating diverse afflictions, including chronic pain, insomnia, fibromyalgia, allergies, infertility, addiction and such joint problems as tennis elbow.
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What does it feel like?
Is acupuncture painful? Yes and no. The practitioner inserts a very thin needle into a particular “point” on the body. You may feel a pinch when the skin is broken, but after that, the insertion should be painless. After inserting several points, depending on the condition, the practitioner will generally leave the needles in for 20 to 40 minutes, during which you may feel a tingling, spreading or warm sensation. Some practitioners may gently move the needles, or apply heat or a mild electric current, to further stimulate the flow of ch’i.
Will it cause bleeding?
Once the needles are removed, bleeding is usually minimal, but patients who are taking blood thinners such as Coumadin should consult a physician before undergoing acupuncture. Licensed acupuncturists are required to use sterile packs of disposable needles, to minimize the risk of infection.
How can I find a qualified acupuncturist?
Many practitioners of Western medicine can refer you to a competent acupuncturist as complementary treatment, so if you think acupuncture might be helpful to you, start by asking your primary care physician. The website of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture* enables visitors to search for a physician with both Western medical and TCM training. The Continuum Center of Health and Healing, part of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, offers acupuncture treatment along with many other complimentary therapies. There also are several schools of TCM in New York City that offer discounted treatment by advanced students who are closely supervised by experienced practitioners:
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* Beth Israel Medical Center is not responsible for, does not endorse, and cannot assure the accuracy of information on the above outside websites.
Information provided by Abigail Strubel, a Social Worker at Beth Israel Medical Center.