Acupuncture has been used to treat a variety of illnesses for more than 2,000 years. Acupuncture is a component of the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) system of medicine. As such, a diagnosis based on TCM is generally made prior to the administration of acupuncture needles. This TCM diagnosis, which is much different than diagnosis in Western medicine, is based on a practitioner’s observation (of the pulse and tongue) and a thorough patient interview. The patient interview is useful for assessing the body’s balance of yin and yang (hot or cold properties), for evaluating deficiency or excess patterns of disease, and for determining the state of the body’s internal organs and channels. Once an assessment is made, a series of acupuncture points is selected to improve the balance of yin and yang, to harmonize a deficient or excess condition, and to nourish the organ or channel involved in the disease process. Stimulation of the selected acupoints (situated along ‘meridians’ in the body) by inserting needles is believed to promote the flow of energy through the system, and thereby restore the body’s balance.
The theory of the channels is fundamental to the understanding of acupuncture. There are 365 mapped acupuncture points along the 12 major channels, as well as over a thousand extra points found on the hand, ear, and scalp. Qi (pronounced “chi”) is the energy moved through the channels and the movement of qi helps to balance yin and yang, balance an excess or deficiency in the body, and nourish the internal organs.
Acupuncture is the insertion of needles into specific acupoints found on the body meridians. Manipulation of the needle following insertion can assist with moving the qi, and can help to nourish or sedate the channel. Certain acupuncture techniques, such as the insertion of the needle at various times during inhalation or exhalation, are thought to affect the outcome of treatment.1 Other methods frequently used in a TCM treatment include cupping (the use of suction cups to draw heat from the body), guasha (the use of spoons to apply friction to the skin), moxibustion (the use of burning mugwort to heat the acupoints), electroacupuncture (the addition of an electrical current to the acupuncture needles), and tuina (chinese massage). Electroacupuncture utilizes an external source of electricity attached to the acupuncture needles to create a current across two or more acupoints. Electroacupuncture is frequently used in scientific research. Although acupuncture has received much attention by the media, herbs used in a TCM treatment are of equal or greater importance to the overall treatment. Chinese herbal (patent) formulas have been researched extensively in Asia; however, there is very little research to assess the outcome of both an acupuncture and herbal program used simultaneously to treat disease.
The most common clinical applications of acupuncture include the control of pain, migraine, asthma, depression, and alcohol and drug addiction. There are some fundamental differences between the eastern and western systems of medicine, which make it difficult to study the efficacy of acupuncture using double-blind placebo-controlled trials. Since TCM is a multilayered system of diagnosis, it is possible to have several TCM diagnoses that would describe one western medical diagnosis. For example, a flu is a viral illness in western medicine. But in TCM there are many types of flu and the diagnosis depends on other associated symptoms such as fever or chills, cough or runny nose, back pain or digestive upset. Therefore the treatment of a flu with TCM could utilize a variety of different acupoints, depending on the type of flu. Many of the scientific studies that are performed to test the efficacy of acupuncture have allowed for individualization of treatment; however, in many others a standard protocol, or a single point procedure was used. These differences may partly explain the conflicting nature of some acupuncture research.
Acupuncture has been used in connection with the following conditions (refer to the individual health concern for complete information):
1. Tanaka TH, Leisman G, Nishijo K. The physiological responses induced by superficial acupuncture: a comparative study of acupuncture stimulation during exhalation phase and continuous stimulation. Int J Neurosci 1997;90:45–58.
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