How does acupuncture work? Traditional Chinese medicine explains that health is the result of a harmonious balance of the complementary extremes of yin and yan of the life force known as gi or chi. Qi is said to flow through meridians (pathways) in the human body. Through 350 acupuncture points in the body, these meridians and energy flows may be accessed. Illness is said to be the consequence of an imbalance of the forces. If needles are inserted into these points with appropriate combinations it is said that the energy flow can be brought back into proper balance.
In Western societies and several other parts of the world, acupuncture is explained including concepts of neuroscience. Acupuncture points are seen by Western practitioners as places where nerves, muscles and connective tissue can be stimulated. Acupuncture practitioners say that the stimulation increases bloodflow while at the same time triggering the activity of our own body's natural painkillers.
Who may benefit from acupuncture treatment? Even though acupuncture is commonly used on its own for some conditions, it is becoming very popular as a combination treatment by doctors in Western Europe and North America. The use of acupuncture to alleviate pain and nausea after surgery is becoming more widespread. Even the US Air Force began teaching "Battlefield Acupuncture" to physicians deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan in early 2009. Using acupuncture before and during surgery significantly reduces the level of pain and the amount of potent painkillers needed by patients after the surgery is over, a study revealed.
Acupuncture is also starting to make inroads into veterinary medicine. This article explains how a mare which had an infection in her ankle was treated by a vet at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech with a combination of acupuncture and traditional therapy.
As more and more physicians accept acupuncture, a wider range of illnesses and condition are being considered for acupuncture treatment. A study found that acupuncture may help indigestion symptoms commonly experienced by pregnant women. Some studies have revealed that there are conditions for which acupuncture appears to have no beneficial effect. A study carried out by researchers at Daejon, Busan, South Korea, and Exeter, United Kingdom, found that acupuncture cannot be shown to have any positive effect on hot flashes during the menopause. However, acupuncture does offer effective relief from hot flashes in women who are being treated with the anti-estrogen tamoxifen following surgery for breast cancer, another study found.
As it is very difficult to devise clinical studies that measure the effectiveness of acupuncture against a placebo, it is hard to create a definitive list of conditions in which acupuncture may be effective. However, some studies have indicated that acupuncture may help in treating low back pain (according to the SPINE trial), fibromyalgia (Mayo Clinic trials), migraines, post-operative dental pain (the Cochrane review), hypertension (Center for Integrative Medicine at UC Irvine study) and osteoarthritis (according to researchers at the University Medical Center in Berlin, Germany), as well as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Other studies have shown that acupuncture may help women with painful periods. A Cochrane trial found that although acupuncture helps people with headaches, fake acupuncture also seems to help them.
Exercise and electro-acupuncture treatments can reduce sympathetic nerve activity in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a study found.