Forty-four-year-old Mary W. could not find help for the migraine headaches that had plagued her for years. One or two drugs assisted in numbing the pain, but none rid her of the problem for long. She was not happy with the drowsiness and digestive upset that painkillers brought, and became
increasingly afraid that she may have to rely on analgesics and antidepressants for the rest of her years. She sought acupuncture treatments as a last resort. It was found that her headaches were related to her menstrual cycle- something she intuitively suspected, but was told had no correlation. It was also discovered that her other complaints of anxiety, restlessness, poor sleeping and severe premenstrual symptoms, together with signs that included a pale tongue with red edges and a weak, tense pulse quality, indicated an imbalance of liver and heart energy.
Mary began a 12-week acupuncture treatment program incorporating Oriental bodywork, dietary counseling, herbal medicine and meditation - all aimed at restoring balance to her liver and heart energy. By the third treatment her headaches and premenstrual symptoms were much improved. A month ahead of schedule she had experienced such a dramatic change in her PMS - less weepiness, irritability, anxiety and no headaches - that she was able to taper off her treatments to every two weeks. Mary, who reports feeling more at ease in her daily life and enjoying her husband and kids more, now has acupuncture treatments once a month for maintenance, and to prevent potential problems from arising.
Mary is just one of nine to 12 million patients in the U.S. who have discovered the benefits of acupuncture and visit an acupuncturist each year, according to a 1993 Federal Drug Administration (FDA) estimate. In a nation where we are plagued by increasing chronic and degenerative disease, and faced with the limitations of drug therapy and surgery, acupuncture and the Oriental healing arts employ safe, non-invasive therapies and natural medicine to restore balance to the four levels of a person: body, emotions, mind and spirit
Although acupuncture has a history that spans approximately 5,000 years and is used by 25% of the world's population, it has only been in the last decade that its popularity has increased significantly in North America. One of the reasons for that increase is that people have discovered that acupuncture produces results. In a study conducted in six clinics in five states, 91.5% of patients treated with acupuncture reported disappearance or improvement of symptoms; 84% said they go to see their physicians less frequently; 79% said they use fewer prescription drugs; and 70% of those to whom surgery had been recommended said they avoided it.
What is Acupuncture?
Most people know that acupuncture involves the insertion of needles into the body but many don't really understand how it works or the philosophy behind the treatment. Acupuncture is a major part of the system of Oriental medicine. It's based on the same basic principle from which all of the Oriental healing arts spring - that an invisible energy system underlies the body, and that imbalance in that energy (Qi) leads to illness. Eastern modalities also include Oriental bodywork therapy, dietary therapy, herbal medicine and Qi Gong (energy-based meditation). Underlying them all is a world view that sees human beings as directly connected to all life, and part of the same design that includes the entire cosmos.
In the Oriental view, health is balance or harmony within a person and their environment that manifests as a peaceful vitality. Oriental medicine emphasizes the prevention and treatment of illness, addressing the diet and lifestyle factors which influence health and disease, and encouraging a person to become more self-aware. The goal of therapy, with acupuncture and the other arts, is to restore balance to a person's underlying foundational energy, and in doing so attune her to that part of herself that knows how to live in a healthful and peaceful way. The ultimate aim is to help people manifest their unique potential or destiny (ming) in life.
How It Works
Acupuncture first used stone needles (ouch!) and later employed iron, bronze and bamboo as technology advanced. Today's needles are very fine, sterile, stainless steel needles which are quite comfortable, and generally inserted with the aid of plastic guide tubes which minimize the sensation of insertion. Nearly all American practitioners use disposable needles, to save time and expense, and to help patients be at ease. They are much thinner than the hypodermic needles we remember from the doctor's office, and so are far more comfortable when inserted.
Acupuncture is not painful, nor is it entirely painless. Once the needle is set, it usually is not even felt at all. Needles are left in for about 20 minutes, then removed. The specific sites used, often called points, are doorways into the energy system. These energic portals lie on pathways called channels or meridians. Channels are unseen rivers that carry the life energy (Qi) which underlies all human function. Each channel corresponds to and affects a specific organ system, which includes a range of physical functions, as well as emotional, mental and spiritual aspects.
For example, a patient like Mary, who suffers from headaches, mood swings, premenstrual symptoms and a feeling of "being stuck" in life may be assessed with an imbalance of liver energy. Liver energy relates not only to the physical liver, but also to free and relaxed emotional energy, menstrual function, blood, anger, eyes, nails, tendons and ligaments, clarity, good judgment, imagination, spiritual intelligence, foresight and decisiveness. Stimulating acupuncture points on the liver channel with the right intention can empower the healthy expression of those aspects of a person. There are 12 such organ systems in the body, each with its own unique physical, mental and spiritual qualities. Acupuncture, though best known for treating and preventing chronic pain and addictions, helps with dozens of diverse health conditions, and encourages a sense of well-being and peace. Conventional medical approaches are more effective for trauma and life-threatening conditions.
What Does Acupuncture Treat?
The World Health Organization recognizes acupuncture and traditional Oriental medicine's ability to treat more than 43 common disorders, including:
* Gastrointestinal disorders, such as food allergies, peptic ulcer, chronic diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, gastrointestinal weakness, anorexia and gastritis
* Urogenital problems, including stress incontinence, urinary tract infections, and sexual dysfunction o Gynecological concerns, such as irregular, heavy, or painful menstruation, infertility and premenstrual syndrome
* Respiratory diseases, such as emphysema, sinusitis, asthma, allergies and bronchitis o Disorders of the bones, muscles, joints and nervous system, such as
* Arthritis, migraine headaches, neuralgia, insomnia, dizziness, and low back, neck and shoulder pain o Circulatory illnesses, such as hypertension, angina pectoris, arteriosclerosis and anemia o Emotional and psychological problems, including depression and anxiety
* Addictions, such as alcohol, nicotine and drugs
* Eye, ear, nose and throat disorders o Supportive therapy for other chronic and painful debilitating diseases
* In addition, controlled clinical trials in the U.S. have evaluated the use of acupuncture combined with standard stroke protocol for the treatment of paralysis due to stroke. Effective results were found for more than 80 percent of the patients receiving acupuncture, with a cost savings of $26,000 per patient.
* On Nov. 5, 1997, the National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference (NIH) on acupuncture concluded that "Acupuncture is an effective treatment for nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy drugs, surgical anesthesia, and pregnancy; and for pain resulting from surgery and a variety of musculoskeletal conditions."
* The NIH panel also stated that "One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many other drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions."
Proper Credentials Essential Today there are over 14,000 acupuncturists in America, and dozens of different styles of acupuncture treatment. Practitioners trained in different traditions employ different approaches. The most important factor in selecting an acupuncturist is their depth of training, licensure or certification, and experience. With this in mind, it is best to seek an acupuncturist who has met the standards for national certification set by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), which also certifies practitioners of Oriental bodywork therapy and Chinese herbalism. Currently, 40 states license acupuncturists; 38 use NCCAOM certification as a licensing requirement
Cost Acupuncture is cost-effective because of its emphasis on effective, low-cost natural therapies, and the prevention and early treatment of illness. Increasingly, insurers are paying for acupuncture therapy, often without a doctor's prescription. A typical first visit/evaluation is $75 to $150, with follow-up treatments at $50-$100. Ask your insurance company if it will pay or reimburse you for care; they may offer reduced fees with acupuncturists in their network. If you would like to find an acupuncturist in your area, the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine provides referrals to more than 7,000 NCCAOM-certified acupuncturists, Chinese herbalists and Oriental bodywork therapists. Call 703-548-9004 or visit www.nccaom.org.
About the Author
Michael Gaeta, BPS, is a New York State licensed acupuncturist, licensed nutritionist, licensed massage therapist and certified Amma therapist, and holds a diplomate in Asian bodywork therapy. He is a graduate of the New York College of Health Professions, where he has been a faculty member since 1993. Michael is a certified instructor and state representative of the American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia. Michael also serves as President of the Acupuncture Society of New York. He writes for local and national publications, and presents seminars nationally on practice management, nutrition, medical ethics, herbal therapy and Oriental medicine. He is also a pianist and composer. His passion is to give, love and serve through teaching, hands-on therapies and music. Michael founded the Hands-On Health Wholistic HealthCare Center in 1990.