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Following An Ancient Path to Health and Healing

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

Every profession has its own jargon, and acupuncture is no exception. In part, its language consists of letters and numbers paired together, "spoken" singly or in sequences…TH 21 or SI 10, for example; GB 34, GB 39, GB 40 or LI 10, LI 11, LI 12 and LU 4.

The letter-number combinations are the names of acupuncture points—places along the body’s natural energy channels, or meridians, where the practitioner’s thin, stainless-steel needles will be inserted, depending on the physical condition, pain, illness or injury being treated.

Acupuncture has been clinically proven effective for the control of both chronic and acute pain. It has also been used successfully in the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, drug detoxification, arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis, migraine headache, carpal tunnel syndrome, allergies, muscle spasms, plantar fascitis, hypothermia, vertigo, sleep disorders, anorexia, infertility—even persistent hiccups. And that’s just a partial list.

It Works for Almost Any Body

Acupuncture is not "faith healing"; you don’t need any special physical predisposition or "belief" to get relief. That’s why, even if they don’t understand the exact mechanisms involved, a growing number of Western physicians have come to rely on it as a complementary therapy to relieve a wide range of symptoms, from severe PMS to post-operative pain.

Many veterinarians now incorporate acupuncture into their treatment of household pets and larger animals suffering from joint stiffness, renal dysfunction and other dis-eases. Most critters remain remarkably calm and relaxed during the process, the vets will tell you. The animals’ owners, who may start out as skeptics, will tell you they notice marked improvement almost right away.

Twenty-first century scientists explain acupuncture as a process of stimulating the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord and brain. Those chemicals, the scientists assert, either change the experience of pain or trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones that influence the body’s natural internal regulating system.

But the fact is, without over-analyzing its possible "chemical" components, acupuncture has proven its worth for centuries.

Developed in China between 1030 and 221 B.C., a time when Confucianism and Taoism were coming into their own as major philosophical ideologies, acupuncture satisfied both: Confucianism’s belief in the sacrosanct wholeness of the human body, and Taoism’s focus on "the Way" to an integrated harmony of the human being and the forces of the natural world.

Acupuncture evolved into a means of treating internal disease with external techniques, drawing upon a concept that is basic to traditional Chinese medicine: the flow of energy, or ch’i, along pathways in the body—each energy channel near the surface of the skin linked to a particular vital organ.

Imagine an obstruction in a meridian to be like an unwelcome beaver dam in a river. The backed-up energy causes overload elsewhere and damage "downriver." Now imagine the acupuncture needle poking holes through the dam, allowing energy to flow again and restoring the organs’ ability to do their jobs.

By needling precise acupuncture points along the pathways, the healer balances the flow of energy, thereby regulating the function of the corresponding internal organs—a goal that both ancient and modern acupuncturists share.

Does Acupuncture Hurt?

People who visit an acupuncturist for the first time—including those who may have preconceptions about being "stuck" with needles—are often surprised to discover that the experience is not at all what they expected…or feared.

The needles are very thin, sterilized stainless steel, and their points are smooth. They’re not designed to pierce the skin and carry medication into the bloodstream, the way hollow hypodermic needles are.

Some people say they feel a little pain when the needles are inserted, but they generally describe it as less than the prick from an injection. Others feel no pain at all.

Nor do the needles hurt when they are in place, although the patient may notice a tingling sensation or a feeling of warmth as the acupuncturist spins them, quickly or slowly, to calm or stimulate the meridians, as needed.

The practitioner may decide to use moxabustion to release certain blockages, a time-honored Chinese practice that involves burning a bit of a dried herb, usually mugwort, over specific acupuncture points. When lit, the moxa burns slowly to provide a penetrating heat that enters the meridians and increases the flow of blood and ch’i.

Most acupuncturists use moxa sticks, which resemble cigars or incense sticks. These are lit and held about an inch above the area being treated, then rotated or turned toward and away from the body, with the healer taking care to ensure that the burning moxa does not come in direct contact with the skin.

Interestingly, ancient teachings held that the formation of a blister was essential for healing. But, readers will be glad to know, today’s acupuncturists have found that moxabustion is highly effective without raising blisters.

In addition, modern acupuncturists may use electrical current or laser light to increase the efficacy of the needles—depending on the condition being treated. Unsettling or uncomfortable as that may sound uncomfortable, such processes are painless.

What Happens After Treatment?

The after-effects of acupuncture vary. Some people feel drowsy following a treatment; others experience a sense of elation.

In most situations, a patient’s condition will improve after four to six acupuncture sessions, although the healing process will be more gradual when a disease of long duration is involved.

In some rare cases, a patient will feel worse after treatment, or experience no noticeable change at all—usually due to overstimulation of the body’s energies. Don’t hesitate to let the acupuncturist know so that he or she can rectify the problem by reducing the number of needles used in subsequent sessions.

An acupuncturist may also recommend Chinese herbs to augment the treatment as well as dietary and lifestyle changes that will speed up the healing process and help prevent further illness or weakness.

Seek Out the Right Acupuncturist for You

When looking for a practitioner, experience does count. Acupuncturists may study for as little as three months or for many years. The broader the background, the more likely it is that patients will receive the precise treatments needed for their specific ailments.

Most U.S. schools that offer acupuncture study programs require students to complete a core curriculum that provides both comprehensive theoretical study and hands-on training in Chinese practices, enhanced by a solid foundation in Western sciences, biomedicine, nutrition and bodywork.

You will find highly qualified acupuncturists listed within the pages of Wisdom, and you can also search online for a practitioner in your area. But, as always, never underestimate the recommendation of a trusted health professional, friend or family member to find the healer that’s right for you.

Ellen Eller grew up in Long Island, N.Y., and worked as a copywriter for Doubleday’s book clubs before moving to Shelburne Falls, Mass., in 2004 with her husband, Michael, and daughter Emily, a New York City teacher. She now works as a freelance writer and editor serving both private and corporate clients, including Chicago Review Press, the Gorilla Foundation and Shelburne Falls’ weekly paper, the West County News. She was a regular contributor to Transformational Times, the newsletter of Moriah Marston’s School of the Golden Disks, and has been writing for Wisdom magazine since 2005.

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