Acupuncture goes mainstream

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— The 3,000 year-old Chinese art of acupuncture is moving into Western medicine on a rising tide of success stories. Millions of visits are made to acupuncturists each year in the United States for a wide variety of ailments. With the National Institutes of Health's blessing, acupuncture is well on its way to shedding its alternative image.

The NIH has judged it effective in controlling nausea caused by anesthesia, chemotherapy and pregnancy, as well as pain after dental surgery.

Additionally, the World Health Organization has released supportive statements regarding the benefits of acupuncture in treating the following chronic and acute disorders: allergies, arthritis, asthma, backache, bronchitis, bursitis, common cold, depression, digestion, headaches, muscle strain, migraines, menstrual cramps and sciatica. It has also proven to be effective in stroke rehabilitation.

When ultra-fine acupuncture needles (at least five times thinner than typical hypodermic needles), are tapped into your skin, you may feel a dull ache or tingling sensation. The feeling depends on the location (hands and feet tend to be more sensitive), the condition that is being treated and the acupuncturist's technique.

Although the needles are typically left in place for 15 to 20 minutes, the initial prick is often the only sensation. The sterile needles are discarded after each treatment and side effects are rare.

The traditional Chinese belief says that two life forces of yin and yang combine to produce a vital life energy called qi (pronounced "chee"). This energy flows through the body along pathways known as meridians. Imbalances or blockages in these channels cause illness. Good health returns when acupuncture needles stimulate certain points within the meridians and the flow of energy is restored.

The western biomedical explanation is that the needles stimulate the nervous system to release pain-suppressing endorphins or other naturally occurring chemicals that affect mood, health and pain perception. Changes in the secretion of neurotransmitters and hormones have been documented.

Acupuncture may stimulate the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, though it is unclear how those changes lead to the therapeutic effects. There is evidence that acupuncture affects immune responses.

Why these mechanisms are triggered remains unexplained. But studying the acupuncture phenomenon could lead researchers to a better understanding of the mysteries of the pathways in human physiology. What they find, recast into modern concepts, the Chinese long ago named qi.

There are more than 15,000 licensed acupuncture practitioners in the United States and about 3,000 of these practitioners are physicians. At least 40 medical schools, including Harvard, offer classes in complementary/integrative medicine, and numerous health plans already cover acupuncture or other complementary treatments. The NIH acupuncture endorsement has surely prompted other insurers to follow suit.

When choosing an acupuncturist, make sure he or she is National Board Certified, licensed by your state and in good standing.

For more information call the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at (703) 548-9004.

Neil O'Keeffe is a board-certified acupuncturist with Healing Hands in Steamboat Springs.

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