Practitioners in Asian countries have been using the art and science of acupuncture for centuries to treat many conditions. Today it’s being used in Western countries to treat fibromyalgia, low back pain, shingles and other nerve-related pain, hand, knee, headache and menstrual pain.
Chinese acupuncture relies on inserting extremely fine needles into the skin at “acupoints.” This process may relieve pain by releasing the body’s natural painkilling chemicals, endorphins, or may stimulate the part of the brain governing serotonin, a transmitter affecting mood.
The acupuncturist may turn or twirl the needles to enhance the effect or apply heat or electrical stimulation to the site. Moxibustion, the burning of a therapeutic herb near the skin, may also be used.
In the Japanese form of acupuncture, manipulation isn’t used, and the needles aren’t as deeply inserted as in the Chinese practice.
Korean acupuncture involves inserting needles in only the feet and hands.
A course of treatment includes six to twelve sessions over a three-month period and typically involves the insertion of four to ten needles left in place for 10-30 minutes while a patient rests.
Acupuncture is generally safe. The complication rate is quite low. The switch to single-use, sealed needle packages all but eliminates risks of hepatitis B or HIV.
In testing drugs, a sugar placebo provides a comparison of results with actual medication. It’s much harder to find a comparable “placebo” to measure the results against acupuncture. As a result, the evidence is mixed, perhaps because acupuncture may work for some people and not for others.
Licensing requirements for acupuncturists vary from state to state. If you live in a state where there are no requirements, the best way to find a certified acupuncturist is to find one with certification from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Source: Harvard Medical School Healthbeat, December 29, 2012