Acupuncture. While some of us may shudder at the thought of all those needles, it is intended to promote health and to alleviate pain and suffering. The use of needles and the concept of "qi" may seem foreign (it is) and mysterious to the average American, but let's keep in mind that acupuncture has been tested over thousands of years and continues to be commonly utilized today.Acupuncture is based on the idea that health and illness hinge on "vital energy," or "qi." Your qi may be in or out of balance, and is assessed via "meridians." These meridians are stimulated as needed, with needles at "acupoints." In addition to needles, acupuncture can also utilize herbs, electricity, magnets and lasers, with the goal of stimulating this energy where appropriate. The theory is that by correcting the qi, the body is able to heal itself. Acupuncture is done in accordance with Asian thinking and Oriental medicine that dates back some 5,000 years. Many in modern Western medicine have attempted to understand acupuncture's mechanism. We know that diseases and injuries are healed by a complex set of responses in the body. These responses are controlled by several different signaling systems, including chemicals, nerve signals, and blood circulation. Modern studies have revealed that the primary signaling system affected by acupuncture is the nervous system, which transmits signals along the nerves and releases a number of biochemicals. Acupuncture may stimulate other signaling systems as well, which have been shown to increase the rate of healing. This may lead to a cure for a disease, or at least reduce its impact. What are the side effects of acupuncture? When performed by a properly trained and licensed practitioner, it appears to be safe and effective, with virtually no side effects. Most patients who have acupuncture treatments describe it as painless. Quite often, a sense of relaxation and well-being occurs during and after treatment. Curiously, unexpected benefits may also occur during treatment, since the treatment may trigger a number of different signals that balance the body's energy. What should acupuncture be used for? Acupuncture is a powerful tool, but not a general panacea. Western and Oriental medicine each have their strengths. It is my (admittedly biased) opinion that in general, acute, life-threatening problems are best handled by Western medical doctors and that routine or chronic problems, for which drugs and surgery are found not to be useful, may benefit from use of acupuncture and similar practices. A doctor of Oriental medicine sees symptoms as distress signals that are produced by the body/mind/spirit when it is out of balance. Since acupuncture acts to put the body back into balance, in theory it can treat any disease. Some areas in which it has been found to be particularly effective in the West include various conditions leading to pain (particularly of the back and neck), tendonitis, sports injuries, fibromyalgia, headaches, digestive diseases, and chronic fatigue. Because acupuncture treats the spirit, body and mind, problems related to stress and mental illness also seem to respond well. Have all of these problems and treatments been well tested in carefully controlled studies to prove their benefits? They have not. There are plenty of anecdotal stories, and a slowly increasing number of hard studies. Stay tuned. How do we go about choosing an acupuncturist? For several years, the Medical Board of California has been licensing acupuncturists. In order to practice, an acupuncturist must complete four years of training at an accredited college of Oriental medicine and must pass a rigorous written and practical exam given by the California Acupuncture Committee. Be sure to see a copy of the license before undergoing treatment. If you feel that you have a problem for which acupuncture may give relief, I recommend that you first consult your personal physician to see whether it is appropriate. All physicians are not the same, and your doctor may not "believe" in acupuncture. However, I have found acupuncture to be a very useful alternative for chronic conditions that are not remedied by our traditional Western methods. Good health to you, wherever you may seek it. Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and current chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: October 23, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 27