Acupuncture ranks as one of the oldest and most commonly used methods of healing in the world. But while it originated in China some 3,500 years ago, it has become popular in the United States only in the past three decades. By the early 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration estimated that Americans were making more than 12 million visits annually to acupuncture practitioners, and that number has only risen since.
“More and more people are acquainted with it, and even some physicians are interested in and accepting of it,” said Jonathan Ginzberg, a licensed acupuncturist in Cummington. “That has led to a large increase in the number of acupuncturists and the number of patients seeking them out.”
The concept behind acupuncture isn’t very complex, but it has been the subject of dispute in the world of traditional health care. According to Chinese medicine, about 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body are connected by 20 pathways (12 main and eight secondary). These pathways, known as ‘meridians,’ conduct energy, or qi (prounounced “chi”) between the body’s surface and internal organs.
Practitioners say the needles — which are solid, unlike hypodermic needles, very thin, and inserted just a half-inch or so beneath the skin — should not cause pain, and in fact most people report sensations of excitement, relaxation, or general well-being.
But acupuncture isn’t about mere feelings. Adherents say that qi helps regulate balance in the body and is influenced by the opposing forces of yin and yang, which represent positive and negative energy. Acupuncture is meant to maintain the balance between yin and yang, allowing for the normal flow of qi throughout the body and restoring health to the mind and body — attractive benefits in an increasingly fast-paced society.
Each acupuncture point has a different effect on the qi that passes through it, which partly explains why acupuncture is commonly used on a wide range of diseases and conditions, many of which seem to have little to do with each other.
For instance, in the late 1970s, the World Health Organization recognized the ability of acupuncture and Oriental medicine to treat nearly four dozen common ailments, including neuromusculoskeletal conditions (such as arthritis, neuralgia, insomnia, dizziness, and neck/shoulder pain); emotional and psychological disorders (such as depression and anxiety); circulatory disorders (such as hypertension, angina pectoris, arteriosclerosis, and anemia); addictions to alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs; respiratory disorders (such as emphysema, sinusitis, allergies, and bronchitis); and gastrointestinal conditions (such as food allergies, ulcers, chronic diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, intestinal weakness, anorexia, and gastritis).
In 1997, the National Institutes of Health released a statement saying that acupuncture could be useful by itself or in combination with other therapies to treat addiction, headaches, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma.
These reports might have granted acupuncture a measure of respectability in the mainstream, but practitioners say they don’t need such validation to know that what they do works.
“For a lot of people, their first thought of acupuncture is for pain relief, substance abuse problems, or overeating — those have become some of the more popularized areas for which it’s used,” Ginzberg said. But the Chinese concept of health problems being caused by energy flow imbalances is one that applies to many conditions.
“Whether it’s asthma or ovarian cysts or an ulcer or back pain or headaches, acupuncture can help because it’s shifting that flow of energy.”
Personal testimonials of such successes have helped drive a growing mainstream acceptance of acupuncture. In fact, the practice first began to become well-known in America in 1971, when New York Times reporter James Reston wrote about how doctors in China used needles to ease his abdominal pain after surgery.
“Still, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there wasn’t that much understanding of it — it was a novelty,” Ginzberg said. “But people have come to acupuncture because they are not fully satisfied with what Western medicine has to offer, whether it’s the side effects of medications or simply wanting an alternative opinion to a surgical procedure.”
While some people might worry about the safety or sterility of the needles, proponents say it’s completely safe — moreso, they claim, than treatments involving pharmaceuticals, which can cause adverse reactions or carry side effects. Still, patients need to make clear to practitioners their health background; for example, people with pacemakers could be in danger from electromagnetic interference, and hemophiliacs carry their own set of risks.
Despite the reported success stories, many mainstream physicians continue to cast a skeptical eye on this ancient practice.
For example, Dr. Stephen Barrett, who operates the Web site quackwatch.org, cites studies claiming that the placebo effect, external hypnotic suggestion, and cultural conditioning are important factors in the effectiveness of acupuncture.
“Pain relief produced by acupuncture can also be produced by many other types of sensory hyperstimulation, such as electricity and heat at acupuncture points and elsewhere in the body,” he writes in discussing one such study. “The effectiveness of all of these forms of stimulation indicates that acupuncture is not a magical procedure but only one of many ways to produce pain relief by an intense sensory input.”
For adherents of acupuncture, there are several concepts at play explaining the pain relief and general wellness. One theory suggests that pain impulses are blocked from reaching the spinal cord or brain at various ‘gates’ to these areas. Since a majority of acupuncture points are either connected to or located near neural structures, this suggests that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system.
Yet another theory suggests that acupuncture stimulates the body to produce narcotic-like substances called endorphins, which reduce pain. Other studies have found that other pain-relieving substances known as opiods may be released into the body during acupuncture treatment.
“It’s even used in cancer treatment as an immune modulator or to reduce the side effects of chemotherapeutic drugs and radiation or to aid in recovery from surgery,” Ginzberg said. One problem in making this treatment available to such patients, he added, is a prevalent lack of insurance coverage.
“More and more insurance companies are discovering the cost-effectiveness of acupuncture. Unfortunately, many still do not cover acupuncture therapy, with the exception of drug-addiction treatments, and then only if other therapies have been unsuccessful, or as part of another program,” said Jeffrey A. Singer, who operates the acupuncture.com Web site.
However, he said, “I feel that acupuncture should be considered a valid form of treatment alongside not only other ‘alternative’ forms of treatment, but also alongside mainstream medicine.”
That day may be slow in coming, but adherents of acupuncture say they’re gradually getting their point across.