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Acupuncture is the real deal. It works. The explanation for acupuncture from Traditional Chinese Medicine does not make scientific sense, but that does not mean that the method does not work or that there are not right ways and wrong ways to do it.

The traditional explanation for acupuncture runs something like this. In a healthy body with a healthy spirit, energy from the universe enters the body in the form of "chi," or in Japanese medicine, "qi." Sometimes "bad" energies also enter the body. A common cold, for example, was explained 2,000 years ago as "wind evil" forcing its way through the "interstices," or mesh of energies, in the back of the neck, where it fought the body resulting in headache. If the wind evil could take residence in the nose and throat, its energies solidified into phlegm.

Similarly, the energy of anger could get stuck in the liver, or the energy of the earth transmitted to plants could heal the stomach. Blood was just a denser form of the essential energy the body requires, and tumors just blood that got stuck in its channel.

Just as placing a piece of metal could short a circuit, sticking a needle into a chi channel could short-circuit pernicious energies that cause disease or pain, and restore the normal flow of chi through the body.

Herbs, acupressure, and tai chi work on the same principle, at least in Traditional Chinese Medicine. This is a gross oversimplication of the concepts of acupuncture, but it's not an unfair one.

European and American doctors have been aware of acupuncture since the 1800's, but most of them understandably reacted with skepticism. However, acupuncture has stood up to scientific scrutiny. There are over 22,000 peer-reviewed academic studies of acupuncture in the medical literature, and even the most hardened skeptics agree there is something to it.

Modern Chinese doctors, that is, doctors who were trained in China, by and large don't believe in chi, either. The concepts of chi and energy channels are just a convenient, metaphorical way to choose the right places to place the needles. (If you go to an acupuncturist who spouts a lot of terminology and seems to believe in literal wind demons and heat evil, chances are he or she was trained in a Western country.)

However, there are certain kinds of conditions for which acupuncture reliably works, although there is not a "rational" explanation why:

  • Pain. Chronic pain often responds to acupuncture.
  • Allergies. People who can't get relief from antihistamines or allergy shots often respond to acupuncture.
  • Autoimmune diseases. I have seen astonishing recoveries from a condition called alopecia universalis, in which an autoimmune condition that makes all the hair fall out, after acupuncture treatments. Other autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis may respond less dramatically.
  • Pulled muscles and degenerated joints and disks. People with temperomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ) or torn rotator cuffs or chronic lower back pain often respond to acupuncture.
  • Migraine headaches that just don't respond to medicine sometimes respond to acupuncture -- and there aren't the side effects that come with most acupuncture drugs.

On the other hand, chances are your acupuncturist won't even try to treat diabetes or cancer or heart disease, although he or she may offer acupuncture for problems with pain or immobility that result from these conditions.

How do you find a good acupuncturist?

Chinese-trained acupuncturists tend to have a good grasp of Western medicine. Unlike Western acupuncturists, they go to a short version of traditional medical school when they get their degrees. They often use heavier needles that hurt, however.

Western trained acupuncturists use a lighter touch, but they also tend to take their acupuncture training more literally. That's fine for placing the right needles in the right place, but it may cause the acupuncturist to miss important signals that indicate traditional medicine is necessary.

You can't place needles just anywhere and expect results. Many of the scientific studies of acupuncture involved sometimes putting needles in the "right" places and sometimes doing sham acupuncture, placing them randomly. Following the traditional chi channels and putting needles at the right point are a must.

It's also essential that your acupuncturist uses needles just once. You don't want needles that have been in someone else. You don't want to sit down on an acupuncture needle or step on one with your bare feet. (I've had both experiences, and I never went back to those acupuncturists again. I did not, however, catch anything from the needles.)

If you have a clotting disorder that causes blood to flow too freely, like hemophilia, or if you are on anti-clotting medication, like Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix (clopidogrel), you absolutely must let the acupuncturist know. They may know something is different from your pulse diagnosis, but they probably won't know it's that you are on a medication unless you tell them.

Small children and babies usually should not receive acupuncture, and you don't get needles around your eyes. Auricular or ear acupuncture is often used for treating anxiety and to help dieters, but if your acupuncturist uses it for everything, chances are you need to see someone else.

Herbal medicines, those brews of 10 or 15 or 20 herbs brewed up into a tea that you are told to take every day, are another form of energy medicine. They are meant to continue and augment your energy treatment. You need to take the herbs the acupuncturist gives you, not just any herb you feel like, to get a real benefit.

Acupuncture can be just what you need to get past an illness that your doctor has stopped treating.

It's never enough -- not even in China -- but it can be a very useful tool for treating the nagging small problems that otherwise just won't go away.

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