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At a time when diagnoses like “generalized anxiety disorder” are coming out of the woodwork — a time when prescription antidepressants are being prescribed in record quantities — it’s worth knowing that medication and suffering may not be your only alternatives to feeling permanently bummed and/or overwhelmed.

If you’re feeling wiped out, stressed out, draggy or depressed, consider making friends with the needle — the acupuncture needle, that is. If you’ve never considered acupuncture, or just don’t know much about it, you might be surprised to discover how many helpful and beneficial applications it provides.

Stuck on Acupuncture

Most people get their first experience with acupuncture during a desperate search for acute or chronic pain relief — sometimes as a last-ditch attempt to ward off surgery or avoid prescription painkillers’ side effects. As an outgrowth of  their initial treatments, however, many discover that acupuncture is often just as successful at treating a wide range of other problems, including mental-health issues like stress, depression, moodiness and lethargy.

Although acupuncture in the United States is still viewed as a relatively new, “alternative” form of medicine, in the past decade or two it has made huge inroads in the traditional healthcare community, and is increasingly being embraced by M.D.s. In fact, many doctors refer their patients to acupuncturists when allopathic treatments fail.

While acupuncture is best known in the West for its ability to cure or ameliorate conditions associated with physical pain (such as low back pain, joint pain, headaches and migraines) its broader and lesser-known applications are now coming to light. The National Institute of Health has done several studies that indicate acupuncture is effective in the treatment of a wide range of conditions such as asthma, arthritis, addiction, digestive disorders and drug recovery/detox.

The Institute also recognizes the important role acupuncture plays in the support of treating and relieving the symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety disorders — both as an effective treatment on its own or in conjunction with other medical treatment forms. As more and more people are trying acupuncture and having good results, word is getting around. Not only is acupuncture no longer considered a “weird” or “experimental” treatment, but its popularity and credibility are growing dramatically, even within the staunchly conservative medical community.

Obstacle Course

While plenty of people can tell you from first-hand experience that acupuncture works, they tend to have a harder time explaining why. In fact, even practitioners have differing opinions on the subject.

The classical Chinese explanation revolves around meridians — a complex, river-like system of channels that carry energy or life-force (called “Qi” and pronounced chee) throughout the body and over its surface. Obstruction of these energy channels can result in stagnation or disruption in the movement of the Qi. The effect is like a dam — it slows and backs up the flow throughout the entire system, generally causing one or more problematic symptoms in the process. Meridian obstructions can result in all kinds of disease and distress, sometimes impacting the body’s digestive, reproductive and respiratory systems, as well as an individual’s mental health and general energy level.

Acupuncture is thought to clear these energy channels, helping to release blocked or stagnated energy while detoxifying the body, enhancing nourishment to the tissues and organs, re-establishing the body’s natural flow and returning the system to a healthy balance.

A more physiological explanation for acupuncture’s effectiveness says that applying needles to acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system, prompting it to release chemicals (e.g., endorphins, seratonin and dopamine) into the muscles, spinal cord and brain. It is the influx of these chemicals, then — many of which influence the body’s own internal regulating systems — that is responsible for altering or eliminating the subject’s experience of pain and improving his or her health.

This may be one good explanation for why acupuncture often proves helpful in addressing stress, anxiety and depression, conditions that are frequently associated with an altered brain/body-chemistry profile. While prescription medications for stress and anxiety generally aim to balance the body’s chemistry by delivering an augmented supply of synthetic chemicals in the form of pills, injections or patches, acupuncture focuses on restoring the body’s natural chemical and energetic balances via its own internal production and delivery processes. For many, the result is often an equally good result (medical scientists report that in relieving pain, endorphins act much like morphine), but without any adverse side effects, often in less time and without the need for longterm treatment or medication.

Return to Balance

Balancing brain chemistry is all well and good, but in the eyes of Chinese medicine, the basis for acupuncture’s mental and physical health benefits is somewhat more complex, referring to — among other things — a delicate but essential balance of the fundamental forces known as “yin” and “yang.”

Chinese medicine also addresses the balance of five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, earth), the five organs (lungs, liver, kidney, heart, spleen), and the five emotions (melancholy, anger, fear, joy, worry). In the hands of a qualified acupuncturist, all these considerations come into play during the diagnosis and treatment of an individual’s health challenges.

To diagnose imbalances in these areas, practitioners of Chinese medicine typically use multiple methods of observation (taking the pulse, examining the tongue, skin, eyes and nails, listening to the breath) as well as in-depth inquiry (about appetite and digestion, sleep patterns, etc.). Once diagnosis is established, the practitioner will generally prescribe some combination of acupuncture and/or herbal medicine, diet, exercise and lifestyle counsel to address imbalances. In all the cases, the goal is to return the entire system to a proper balance and the individual to a robust state of lasting mental and physical health.

Acupuncture is not a cure-all. Nor are acupuncture and Chinese medicine replacements for Western, allopathic medical treatment. Rather, they are all complementary therapies — healing approaches that can support and enhance one another. Both approaches have their strengths, and individual patients respond better to some types of treatments than to others. As always, it’s up to you to decide what care best suits your needs and preferences. But if you haven’t tried an integrated East-West approach to your healthcare and wellness, consider it. Whether you are seeking to improve your physical, mental or emotional condition, you may find the results you’re hoping for are only a needle’s width away.

Ending Needle Phobia

One of the most frequently asked questions about acupuncture is: “Does acupuncture hurt?” The answer is “Rarely, and if so, not very much.” But the fear of needles persists among much of the population, and it’s understandable.

Our first (and often only) experience with needles is usually with the thick hypodermic syringes used to draw blood and deliver injections, and those needles can indeed cause a substantial amount of pain.

Fortunately, acupuncture needles and hypodermic needles have virtually nothing in common. Acupuncture needles (disposable and made of the highest quality stainless steel) are extremely thin — barely thicker than a human hair.

They’re inserted quickly just beneath the surface of the skin with a sensation (perhaps a slight sting or pinch like a mosquito bite) that lasts only a fraction of a second. And once placed, they generally create little (if any) discomfort.

During first sessions, people frequently express amazement at how comfortable and pain-free the experience is. In fact many patients get so relaxed during their sessions that they daydream or fall asleep.

Best of all, because acupuncture is generally practiced in quiet, serene, comfortable environments in which care and respect are emphasized, most first-timers are pleasantly surprised to find it an all-around relaxing and rejuvenating experience — one they look forward to rather than dread!

Take Me To Your Acupuncturist

When seeking out acupuncture treatment, look for a highly qualified healthcare provider. Doctors of Chinese Medicine (D.T.C.M.), licensed acupuncturists and Naturopathic Doctors (N.D.) are generally the most highly trained practitioners of the art. Although others (such as physicians and chiropractors) may be trained and certified to practice acupuncture, they generally have about one-tenth the training than the aforementioned specialists (approximately 200 hours vs. 2,500 hours) and may not be able to recommend an integrated course of treatment.

For proper diagnosis and complete treatment of both physical and mental conditions, it’s worth seeking out the most knowledgeable acupuncturist you can find. Ask for referrals from friends and trusted healthcare professionals, and be sure to research the training and background of any practitioners you are considering.

NOTE: This article is for educational purposes only and does not advocate self-diagnosis. Consultation with a licensed health professional, such as a naturopathic physician, is highly recommended prior to starting any natural treatment plan.

This article has been updated. It originally appeared as “The Finer Points of Acupuncture” and was published online on March 1, 2002.

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