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What is acupuncture?

How do you know if acupuncture is right for you? Let's start with a basic understanding of acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a traditional medicine that’s been practiced in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years. Its proponents say it can do everything from relieving pain to bringing a general sense of wellness.

Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body. The methods can vary, but the most well-known type in the United States is the insertion of thin metal needles through the skin. At least 3 million adults nationwide use acupuncture every year, according to the latest estimates.

How is acupuncture connected to traditional Chinese medicine?

Acupuncture is part of a family of procedures that originated in China. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body contains a delicate balance of two opposing and inseparable forces: yin and yang. Yin represents the cold, slow or passive principle. Yang represents the hot, excited or active principle. Health is achieved through balancing the two. Disease comes from an imbalance that leads to a blockage in the flow of qi—the vital energy or life force thought to regulate your spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health. Acupuncture is intended to remove blockages in the flow of qi and restore and maintain health.

How might acupuncture support Western medicine?

Researchers don’t know how these ideas translate to our Western understanding of medicine, but many well-designed studies have found that acupuncture can help with certain conditions, such as back pain, knee pain, headaches, and osteoarthritis.

Should I try acupuncture?

Studies have found it to be very safe, with few side effects. If you’re thinking about it, talk to your doctor first, then find a practitioner who has experience working with your specific situation, and, finally, give the treatment some time to have an effect and be open-minded.

Article adapted from the National Institutes of Health February 2011 News in Health - read the full article, available online at newsinhealth.nih.gov/issue/feb2011/feature1.