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Pinpointing Arthritic Relief with Acupuncture

For thousands of years, healers have known that the "laying on of hands" can have a powerful therapeutic effect on the body. This type of therapy doesn't necessarily cure the disease, but it can help relieve pain, increase vital circulation, ease mental stress, relax tensed muscles, increase overall relaxation, and aid the body in its struggle to rebuild itself.

Introducing acupuncture

An important part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to prevent and treat disease by balancing the body's energy flow.

In traditional Chinese medicine, disease is thought to be the result of an imbalance or blockage of energy or chi (pronounced "chee") in one or more parts of the body. (Air and food supply us with energy, while the stresses and strains of living diminish this energy.) Acupuncturists believe that manipulating specific points on the body can unblock the energy flow and restore the body's balance.

According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, energy flows through the body along invisible channels called meridians. Twelve major meridians run through your body to deliver energy and sustenance to your tissues, but these channels can become obstructed. When they do, the obstructions act like tiny dams, blocking or slowing the flow of energy and serving as a major cause of pain and disease. Luckily, the meridians touch the surface of your skin at some 300 different points called acupuncture points, and by manipulating and stimulating these points, the acupuncturist can remove the obstructions and reestablish the healthy flow of chi throughout your body.

When you first visit an acupuncturist, she will probably interview you extensively about your symptoms, level of pain, medical history, diet, bowel habits, quality of sleep, and so on. She may also examine your eyes, tongue, skin, or fingernails; take your pulse; and listen to your voice, breathing, and bowel sounds.

During your visit, you either lie or sit on a padded table for the treatment, but you won't have to remove all your clothing, just loosen it and uncover the areas to be treated. Your acupuncturist then stimulates and manipulates certain acupressure points, but just a few — not all 300 of them! The following list explains the various methods your acupuncturist may use to do this:

  • Inserting fine needles: Your acupuncturist may insert anywhere from 2 to 15 hair-thin needles into certain points and leave them standing for a period of time (usually 20 to 40 minutes). He won't necessarily insert the needles directly into the area that's bothering you, but rather along the meridian that affects that area. So don't be surprised if your feet are manipulated to ease your back or neck pain! The needles are so fine, you may not feel them, but if you do, you usually feel just a moderate sting that disappears quickly. Your acupuncturist may insert needles shallowly (just under your skin) or as deep as an inch or more.
  • Adding a low-level current (electro-acupuncture): Many acupuncturists have found that the addition of a low-level electrical current can make the treatment more powerful. Wires are attached to the acupuncture needles after the needles are inserted, and these wires are hooked up to a box that delivers an electrical current. Your acupuncturist adjusts this current by turning a dial. You should feel a light buzzing at your acupuncture points. If the buzz is annoying or uncomfortable, tell your acupuncturist, and he can turn down the "juice" until it no longer bothers you.
  • Using heat and herbs (moxibustion): To stimulate your acupuncture points, your acupuncturist may burn a small amount of an herb called mugwort (or moxa in Chinese) over your acupuncture points, being careful not to burn your skin.
  • Cupping: Small glass cups are heated and placed over your acupuncture points where they create a vacuum-like effect. As they cool, the cups invigorate these areas.

Discovering what acupuncture can do for you

More than 15 million Americans have used acupuncture to treat ailments ranging from asthma to ulcers, but its primary use is for pain relief. Many people with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, fibromyalgia, and Raynaud's phenomenon swear by acupuncture, and some studies have shown that it can relieve pain caused by osteoarthritis and/or fibromyalgia. Although no scientific explanation for its effectiveness exists, acupuncture does produce real responses in the body, including stimulation of the immune and circulatory systems and the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.

You may require several acupuncture sessions (perhaps as many as six) before you begin to notice a difference, but once the beneficial effects set in, they often last for weeks, months, or even longer. Unfortunately, acupuncture doesn't work for everyone.

Finding a good acupuncturist

To find a good acupuncturist, begin looking for one who is licensed by the state, if your state happens to be one that licenses acupuncturists. (Some states don't.) It's also a good idea to look for a practitioner certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), acupuncture's equivalent to the American Medical Association. Some 13,000 practitioners have been certified by the NCCAOM, so you can probably find at least one in your area. Or, if you like the idea of receiving acupuncture from someone with a medical degree, contact the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. It can provide you with a list of MDs or DOs (doctors of osteopathy) who have completed 200 hours of medical acupuncture training, had two years of medical acupuncture clinical experience, and performed at least 500 medical acupuncture treatments.

Finally, ask the members of your health care team for referrals, because more members of the traditional Western medical community are becoming aware of the benefits of acupuncture. (Who knows? Maybe some of them see acupuncturists themselves!) It doesn't hurt to ask, and your medical team members may be able to give you some good leads.

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