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When acupuncture is most effective: Osteoarthritis, low back pain, and headaches are among the conditions most responsive to acupuncture.

People who fail to get pain relief with traditional Western medicine methods often turn to alternative and complementary methods, such as acupuncture.

"Pain is the symptom for which acupuncture is most commonly used," says Victoria Harrison, MD, assistant professor in rehabilitation medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. "And if you decide to try acupuncture, it's important to understand that it can be used in conjunction with Western medical techniques; it's not an either/or decision."

When acupuncture spells relief

According to Dr. Harrison, the most common indications for acupuncture are for pain at these locations or resulting from these conditions:

* Osteoarthritis in joints, including the shoulder, hip, and knee

* Post-operative pain, including post-op dental pain

* Strain or sprain of the cervical and lumbar spine (neck and low back pain)

* Headaches, including migraines

* Muscle and other connective tissue pain, such as golf or tennis elbow

* The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) in the jaw

"Acupuncture also can be very effective for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, and it can be used as a prophylactic (preventive) measure for migraines," says Dr. Harrison. "Emerging data is finding that acupuncture may be effective for menopausal symptoms and infertility."

Understanding acupuncture

Acupuncture is a branch of traditional Chinese medicine; it has been used as a healing modality for more than 2,000 years. The Eastern model of health focuses on treating the entire body, in contrast with the Western model, which isolates the organ or system that is not functioning properly.

"Eastern medicine looks at the balance of organ systems and elements, which include fire, water, earth, metal and wood. If there is an imbalance, it creates either an excess or deficiency in the body, and the goal is to get the body back to the center and achieve equilibration," explains Dr. Harrison.


Acupuncture is based on the premise that all of the body's systems are connected through a network of meridian channels throughout the body.

"These channels are where communication takes place between the inside and the outside of the body," says Dr. Harrison. "'Qi,' which translates roughly as 'vital energy' or 'life force,' runs through the channels, and an imbalance causes the qi to stagnate. Placing the acupuncture needles at points along the channels promotes the flow of qi in the body and a return to a balanced state."

The procedure of placing the needles at points along the meridians is called "needling."

"When needling is done, the patient may feel a small prick as the needle is applied, and they may feel a sensation of heaviness, fullness, or spreading--these are signs of qi activation," explains Dr. Harrison. She adds that patients often don't feel anything when the needles are applied.

Needle fears allayed

If you have an aversion to needles, it's important to understand that acupuncture needles are very different from the needles used in Western medical practice.

"An acupuncture needle is nothing like a needle used to draw blood or give a vaccine. An acupuncture needle is the thickness of a human hair, and the end is blunt, not beveled; it is not meant to cut the skin, but to go through tissue planes," says Dr. Harrison.

Acupuncture also is associated with very low risks--far fewer than many Western medical treatments, such as side effects associated with many medications and complications that may arise from surgeries.

"Acupuncture has a very high safety profile, with less than one percent chance of injury or problematic side effects," states Dr. Harrison.

Most states have licensing requirements for acupuncture practitioners. A variety of credentials are used; common ones include LAc (Licensed Acupuncturist, DOM (Doctor of Oriental Medicine), and AP (Acupuncture Physician). Before you make an appointment with an acupuncture practitioner, ask about his or her credentials and whether or not he or she is licensed.

Some medical doctors are also trained in acupuncture; Dr. Harrison says that MDs who also practice acupuncture usually take more of a holistic approach and combine Eastern and Western healing techniques.


* To find a medical doctor (MD) licensed in acupuncture, visit the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture's Website at

* Most treatments are done in 15-minute sessions; you may have more than one session during one appointment.

* Medicare does not cover acupuncture, but some commercial insurance plans cover it, although there may be limitations on how many sessions and/or which diagnoses are covered.
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Publication:Women's Health Advisor
Date:May 1, 2012
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