– American Cancer Society: Article date:12/23/1999
Acupuncture was developed in China more than 2,000 years ago. Although it was created originally as a medical therapy to treat illnesses, acupuncture is rarely used for that purpose in this country today. Instead, it is used mainly to control some types of pain and symptoms of illnesses. In China and other countries, it is still used instead of drug or gas anesthesia during operations and major dental work.
Acupuncture has been studied carefully. Based on research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies, it has been shown to be effective for the nausea associated with pregnancy, postoperative nausea and vomiting, nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, and postoperative dental pain. It may be effective in helping to treat other conditions such as addiction, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia (general muscle pain), low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma. It may also be useful in stroke rehabilitation.
Acupuncture involves the placement of disposable, stainless steel, hair-thin needles into the skin. The needles are placed just deep enough into the skin to keep them from falling out. Skilled acupuncturists can insert the needles painlessly. They are placed at certain points, called acupoints, along invisible channels that the ancients called “meridians.” Most treatments require needles in only 10 or 12 points, although more than 1,000 are recognized.
Needles usually are kept in place for less than 30 minutes. Twirling the needles into motion is thought to enhance the result. Today, electro-acupuncture is commonly used. A supply of weak electric power is attached to needles after they are placed in the skin. The tiny amount of electric power takes the place of twirling the needles by hand.
Other modern variations use heat, laser beams, sound waves, and other non-needle means of stimulating acupuncture points.
What makes acupuncture work?
Researchers continue to look for a scientific explanation of how acupuncture works. The founders of ancient Chinese medicine, however, developed a remarkable, complex explanation based on their understanding of the body, the world, and the connections between the two. Some people still believe in these concepts, even though they are not consistent with modern understanding. A brief summary is given below.
The meridians, each named for a body organ and dotted with acupoints, run head to toe and fingertip throughout the body. The human body was seen as a miniature model of the outer world. The 12 main meridians, one for each month of the year, represent a system of internal communication that mirrors the 12 main rivers of ancient China. Originally, there were 365 acupuncture points, one for each day of the year. Each organ of the body was believed to be controlled by one of the five elements, or life-force energies, of which all matter was composed: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.
This vital life-force energy was thought to flow through the body’s meridians. The life force is called “chi,” “chi’i,” or “qi” (all pronounced “chee”). A balance of qui ? not too much or too little energy ? meant good health. But too much or too little energy flowing along the meridians was believed to create the imbalance that causes pain and illness.
Each aspect of life, including health and disease, was understood in terms of two extremes that were manipulated by opposite natural forces. These forces were known as the yin, or dark female force, and the yang, or light male force. Illness was thought to result from a lack of balance or harmony between the opposing yin-yang energies. Acupuncture and all other traditional Chinese healing aim to re-balance these energies and thereby restore health.
Will it help?
Acupuncture is simple, and it often works. It has few side effects or complications, and the cost is low. For these reasons, it can be a good choice for some problems that have no underlying cause which can be treated. However, it is important to remember that acupuncture does not cure diseases like cancer. It should not be expected to slow or reverse the spread of cancer.
Currently, there are 6,500 acupuncture practitioners in the US. Many conventional physicians refer patients to well-trained and experienced acupuncturists. Names of qualified acupuncturists can be obtained from one of the national associations that provides names of practitioners who meet competency standards, such as the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine located in Pennsylvania, (610) 266-1433, or the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists in Washington, D.C., (202) 232-1404.
Licensure and regulations regarding the practice of acupuncture vary by state. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia license or regulate the practice of acupuncture. Many private health insurance plans and HMOs cover acupuncture services. Check with your own insurance plan, and talk with your doctor before seeking acupuncture or any other therapy on your own.
ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.