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The practice of inserting thin needles into specific points on the body for the purpose of improving health and well-being. Acupuncture originated in China over 2,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest and most commonly used medical practices in the world. Over the past two decades, the popularity of acupuncture in the United States has grown. According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 8.2 million US adults had used acupuncture at the time of the survey.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Consensus Statement on acupuncture from 1997, there have been many studies of acupuncture’s potential benefits. However, the results have been ambiguous because of issues such as poor study design and inadequate sample size. Some studies have shown that acupuncture may alleviate nausea and vomiting in adults following surgery and chemotherapy as well as postoperative dental pain. Acupuncture may also be a helpful part of treatment for addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia (a condition characterized by pain throughout the body with accompanying fatigue), myofascial pain (a type of chronic muscle pain), osteoarthritis, low-back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma. Research indicates that acupuncture is relatively safe.

Acupuncture may also hold promise for people with painful peripheral diabetic neuropathy. In one study, 77% of people with chronic, painful peripheral diabetic neuropathy treated with up to six cycles of acupuncture analgesia (a type of acupuncture that produces an insensitivity to pain) over a 10-week period showed significant improvement in their symptoms, and in 21%, symptoms cleared completely. Smaller clinical studies have also suggested that acupuncture can help relieve neuropathy pain.

Western medical researchers don’t know exactly how acupuncture might work. According to traditional Chinese medicine (of which acupuncture is a part), disease is caused by an imbalance in the body. This leads to blockage in the flow of qi, or vital energy, along pathways throughout the body called meridians. According to this system of medicine, there are somewhere between 14 and 20 meridians that are connected with no fewer than 2,000 acupuncture points. It is believed that acupuncture restores the flow of vital energy.

According to proponents of Western medicine, acupuncture may regulate the nervous system, aiding the activity of endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers), as well as the immune system. It may also alter brain chemistry by regulating the release of neurotransmitters (chemicals that nerve cells use to communicate with each other) and neurohormones (hormones that regulate the nervous system). The release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones in turn may affect sensation and such involuntary body functions as immune reactions and the regulation of blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature.

If you are interested in trying acupuncture, first talk to your health-care team, which may be a good source for a referral to a qualified practitioner. Be sure to choose an acupuncturist who is licensed and/or has graduated from a respected school of acupuncture. (The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, an agency recognized by the US Department of Education, has accredited more than 50 schools that offer degrees in acupuncture.) If your acupuncturist suggests that you have a medical condition other than any you’re already aware of, be sure to get an evaluation from a medical doctor. (Some acupuncturists are in fact medical doctors in fields such as neurology and anesthesiology.) And make sure to tell your acupuncturist about any medical conditions you know you have, including diabetes.

Originally Published November 24, 2009

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