Acupuncture - A Brief Introduction

A Brief Introduction

By Jeffrey A. Singer

The ancient medical art of acupuncture is considered a new "alternative" medicine in most western cultures today. In reality, acupuncture and related treatments are established, clinically proven medical modalities that are over 5,000 years old. Furthermore; they are not merely treatments, in conjunction with Chinese herbal therapy, they form a complete and comprehensive medicine.

What is acupuncture put quite simply, it is the insertion of very fine needles (sometimes in conjunction with electrical stimulus) into the skin. The purpose of this stimulation is to influence physiological, emotional and psychological functions in the mind and body. (Chinese medicine has always acknowledged that the mind and body are inter-related).

The first record of acupuncture is found in the Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine). This is the oldest medical textbook in the world and is thought to have been written about 4,700 years ago. It is said to have been compiled from even earlier theories by Shen Nung, a brilliant physician and medical theorist, considered by many to be the father of Chinese Medicine. Shen Nung documented theories about circulation, pulse, and the heart over 4,000 years before their discovery in European medicine.

Shen Nung theorized that the body had energy running through it. This energy is known as qi( pronounced Chee). Qi is the motive force of all essential life activities including the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical aspects of one's being. Qi travels throughout the body along "Meridians" or special pathways. The Meridians (or Channels) run bilaterally; that is, they are the same on both sides of the body. There are fourteen main meridians running vertically up and down. Of these, there are twelve organ Meridians and two unpaired midline Meridians.

Acupuncture points are specific locations where the Meridians come to the surface of the skin, and are easily accessible by "needling." Since energy constantly flows up and down these pathways, the connections between them ensure that there is an even circulation of qi. A person's health is influenced by the flow of qi in their body. If that flow is insufficient, unbalanced or interrupted, illness may occur. Acupuncture is said to restore the balance.

Yin and Yang theory is important in the discussion of acupuncture treatment, particularly in relation to the Chinese theory of body systems. Originally discovered from viewing natural phenomena, yin and yang are the metaphorical description of opposite forces that, when balanced, work together. In nature, any upset in the balance will result in natural calamities and in living things, this lack of balance results in disease.

Yin is signified by female attributes, passive, dark, cold, moist, that which moves medially, and is deficient of yang. Yang is signified by male attributes, light, active, warm, dry, that which moves laterally, and is deficient of yin. Nothing is completely yin or yang. The most striking example of this is man himself. A man is the combination of his mother (yin) and and his father (yang). He contains qualities of both. (Tai Chi symbol Illustration missing) This is the universal symbol describing the constant flow of yin and yang forces. You'll notice that within yin, there is Yang, and within Yang, there is the genesis of Yin. Whether or not you believe in Taoist philosophy, (which all this is based on), one thing is indisputable: acupuncture works.

Acupuncturists can use as many as nine types of acupuncture needles, though only six are commonly used today. These needles vary in length, width of shaft, and shape of head. Today, most needles are disposible. They are used once and discarded in accordance with medical biohazard regulations and guidelines. practitioners employ precise methods for inserting needles. points can be needled anywhere in the range of 15 degrees to 90 degrees relative to the skin surface, depending on the treatment called for. In most cases, a sensation, felt by the patient, is desired. This sensation, which is not pain, is called deqi (pronounced dah-chee).

The following techniques are some which may be used by an acupuncturist immediately following insertion: Raising and Thrusting, Twirling or Rotation, Combination of Raising/Thrusting and Rotation, plucking, Scraping (vibrations sent through the needle), and Trembling (another vibration technique). It should be emphasized that techniques are not arbitrary, they are carefully chosen based on the ailment. This is the Chinese medical equivalent of the Western prescription.

There are several related procedures that fall into the range of acupuncture treatments. The first is Electro-Acupuncture. This is the use of very small electrical impulses sent through the Acupuncture needles. This method is generally used for analgesia (pain relief or prevention). The amount of power used is only a few micro amperes, but the frequency of the current can vary from 5 to 2,000 Hz. The higher frequencies are generally used for surgery (usually abdominal), and the lower frequencies for general pain relief. The first reported successful use of Electro-Acupuncture was in 1958 in China for a tonsillectomy. Today, it is a common method of surgical analgesia used in China. Other modern methods for stimulating acupuncture points include using lasers and sound waves (sonopuncture).

The second commonly used treatment in the United States is auriculotherapy or ear acupuncture. It is based on the theory that since the ear has a rich nerve and blood supply, it also must have connections all over the body. For this reason, the ear has many acupuncture points which correspond to many parts and organs of the body. Auricular acupuncture has been successful in treating problems ranging from obesity to alcoholism and drug addiction. There are numerous studies available which affirm auricular acupuncture's effectiveness.

The third treatment method is moxibustion. It is the treatment of conditions by applying heat produced by burning specific herbs to acupuncture points. Acupuncture and moxibustion are considered complimentary forms of treatment, and are commonly used together. Moxibustion is used for ailments such as bronchial asthma, bronchitis, certain types of paralysis, and arthritic disorders.

The fourth method is cupping. This is a technique involving the stimulation of acupuncture points by applying suction through a metal, wood or glass jar, in which a partial vacuum has been created. This approach produces blood congestion at the site, and is used to draw out deleterious energy. Cupping is used for low backache, sprains, soft tissue injuries, and in helping relieve fluid from the lungs in chronic bronchitis.

Lastly, one of the most popular alternatives to acupuncture is acupressure. This is simply acupuncture without needles. Stimulation of the acupuncture points is performed with the fingers or an instrument with a hard ball shaped head. Acupressure is commonly referred to as Reflexology (also called Zone Therapy). This method involves stimulation of the soles of the feet and the posterio-inferior regions of the ankle joints. Many diseases of the internal organs can be treated in this manner.

How does acupuncture work Scientists have no concrete answer, but there are numerous prevailing theories.

1. By some unknown process, acupuncture raises levels of triglycerides, specific hormones, prostaglandins, white blood counts, gamma globulins, opsonins, and overall anti-body levels. This is called the "Augmentation of Immunity" Theory.

2. The "Endorphin" Theory states that acupuncture stimulates the secretions of endorphins in the body (specifically Enkaphalins).

3. The "Neurotransmitter" Theory states that certain neurotransmitter levels (such as Seratonin and Noradrenaline) are affected by acupuncture.

4. "Circulatory" Theory: this states that acupuncture has the effect of constricting or dilating blood vessels. This may be caused by the body's release of Vasodilaters (such as Histamine), in response to treatment.

5. One of the most popular theories is the "Gate Control" Theory. According to this theory, the perception of pain is controlled by a part of the nervous system which regulates the impulse that will later be interpreted as pain. This part of the nervous system is called the "Gate." If the gate is hit with too many impulses, it becomes overwhelmed, and it closes. This prevents some of the impulses from getting through. The first gates to close would be the ones that are the smallest. The nerve fibers that carry the impulses of pain are rather small nerve fibers called "C" fibers. These are the gates that close during acupuncture.

There are many diseases that can be treated successfully by acupuncture or its related treatments. The most common ailments currently being treated are: lower backache, cervical spondylosis, condylitis, arthritic conditions, headaches of all kinds (including migraine), allergic reactions, general and specific use for analgesia (including surgery), and relief of muscles spasms. There have also been clinical trials in the use of acupuncture in treating anxiety disorders and depression. Likewise, very high success rates have been found in treating addictions to alcohol, tobacco (nicotine) and "hard' drugs. It should be noted that acupuncture can rid the body of the physical dependency, but can not rid the mind of the habit (psychological dependency). Acupuncture used in conjunction with counseling and 12 step programs has proven to be remarkable effective.

The efficacy of acupuncture treatment can be demonstrated by examining the results of case studies conducted by some reputable medical institutions. For example, The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has sponsored three studies examining the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of substance abuse.

The first study was conducted at the Lincoln Medical Medical Center in Bronx, NYC, New York. It was headed by Dr. Douglas Lipton, and completed in 1991. It concerned the use of auricular acupuncture on crack cocaine users. The study was split into groups, one getting the correct acupuncture treatments, the other getting "placebo" acupuncture (needles placed in the "wrong" spots). Urinalysis results showed that the subjects receiving the correct treatments had lowered their use of the drug, in as little as two weeks. This was verified by testing for cocaine metabolite levels. However, the reduction was not as significant as had been anticipated. It is important to note that no other type of treatment, such as counseling was given.

In two other studies currently being done, (the first by Dr. Janet Konefal of Miami School of Medicine; and the other by Dr. Milton Bullock at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis) counseling combined with acupuncture is being tested. The preliminary results have been quite promising. Additional studies, too numerous to mention here have proven the effectiveness of acupuncture therapy in nicotine addiction, (see Bibliography for specific case citings).

Between 1971 and and 1972 a series of doctors (Frank Z. Warren: New York University Medical Center; pang L. Man and Calvin H. Chen: Northville State Hospital, Northville, Michigan), conducted seven surgeries at both Northville State Hospital and at Albert Einstein Medical Center. They used both standard Acupuncture and Electro-Acupunture techniques. They found that in all cases of surgery (six invasive and one dental) these Acupuncture treatments were successful in stopping the pain of surgery without additional anesthetics. In only one case (a repair of an inguinal hernia) did the patient complain of "discomfort;" and only in one additional case did a patient (the same one) complain of post-operative pain.

In conclusion, it is evident that acupuncture is an effective treatment modality which should be taken seriously and considered a valid form of treatment alongside other "alternative" modalities, as well as mainstream medicine. More and more insurance companies are discovering the cost effectiveness of acupuncture as both a preventative strategy for maintaining health and well being and an effective treatment of many chronic ailments for which Western medicine has no answer.

Acupuncture Doctors are licensed independently in most states while some states require practitioners to be a Medical Doctor. Unfortunately, the requirements for M.D.'s are often not as stringent as they are for many well trained acupuncturists and this can result in ineffective treatments. As a consumer it is important to ask any practicing acupuncturist where they studied and how they were licensed. Acupuncture schools are federally accredited by the ACAOM (Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). This accreditation demands rigorous standards be met and allows the schools to offer federal guaranteed student loans.


Baxi, Dr. Nilesh and Dr.CH Asrani. Speaking of: Alternative Medicine: Acupuncture. New Dehli, India: Sterling publishers private Ltd, 1986.

Duke, Marc. Acupuncture. New York: pyramid House Books, 1972.

Holden, Constance. "Acupuncture: Stuck on the Fringe." Science, May 6, 1994, pg 770.

Lever, Dr. Ruth. Acupuncture For Everyone. Middlesex, England: penguin Books, Ltd, 1987.

Lipner, Maxine. "Different Strokes." Women's Sports and Fitness, May/June, 1993, pg 31, 32, 85.

Moss, Dr. Louis. Acupuncture And You: A New Approach To Treatment Based On The Ancient Method of Healing. London, England: Elek publishers, 1972.

Nightingale, Michael. The Healing power of Acupuncture. New York: Sterling publishing Co. Inc, 1986.

ponce, pedro E. "Eastern Medicine Collides with Western Regulations at Mass. Acupuncture School." The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 27, 1993, pg A32.

Saslow, Linda. "Scores of Students Take Up Acupuncture at Center in Syosset." New York Times, November 6, 1994.

Warren, Dr. Frank Z. Handbook of Medical Acupncture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1976.

Case Studies

Dr. Douglas Lipton:"Lincoln Clinic Study"; Dr. Janet Konefal:"Miami Study"; Dr. Milton Bullock: "Hennepin County Study." U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health, Office of Human Services, AM, Volume 1, Number 3, January, 1994.

Brewington, Vincent, et al. "Acupuncture as a Detoxification Treatment: An Analysis of Controlled Research." Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Volume 11, Number 4, 1994, pg 289-307.

professor Jayasuriya: paper for the 5th World Congress of Acupuncture;1977: Tokyo, Japan

Special Thanks To:

Dr. Thomas Barba, Barba Chiropractic Clinic; Columbus, Ohio.

Nigel Dawes, Co-Director of the School for Oriental Medicine; Syosset, New York.

Dr. Gerard O'Grady; Lake Grove, New York.

......... for all your help and information.

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