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Acupuncture: Get the Point?

Get the Point?

What is acupuncture?
How does it work?
What is it used for?
What is a session like?
What is a typical course of treatment?
Will my health insurance pay for it?
How can I find an acupuncturist?

You may think that lying on a table stuck with needles like a porcupine doesn't sound like much fun. Well, think again. In a recent study of teenagers who were referred to an acupuncturist for migraine headaches, painful periods, and other conditions, the majority found their treatments "pleasant" and said that acupuncture helped them feel better. back to top

What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture has been practiced in China for thousands of years as part of a system of healing known as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is based on the belief that you have a life force, or energy, called qi (pronounced "chee") that flows inside your body along 12 different channels called meridians. According to this philosophy, when your qi is flowing freely, you have good health, but when it is blocked, you become sick. Acupuncture uses very thin needles at specific points along these meridians (called "meridian points") to get that qi flowing again.

There are many different types and styles of acupuncture. Some acupuncturists insert needles, twirl them, and leave them in there for a while, while others barely touch the needles to your skin. Some use electroacupuncture, which involves passing a low-level electrical current through an acupuncture needle (don't worry—it doesn't give you a shock). Many acupuncturists use more than one technique.

If you're squeamish about needles, you'll be happy to know that some acupuncture methods use no needles at all. These include moxibustion, in which a meridian point is stimulated by carefully burning an herb near it, and cupping, the use of little glass cups placed upside down over your meridian points and gently heated. And there's always acupressure, which stimulates the same points as acupuncture using the fingers instead of needles. back to top

How does it work?
Scientists in the West have been trying to figure that out for a while now. One theory is that stimulating acupuncture points encourages your brain to release certain pain-killing chemicals, such as endorphins, the substances that are released when you get a "runner's high." But this is only a theory, and it doesn't explain why some people who undergo acupuncture have pain relief that lasts much longer than the relief they'd get from a pain-killing drug. back to top

What is it used for?
Acupuncture is used for a wide variety of health conditions, both physical and mental. Scientific studies have shown that it is good for treating pain from dental work and the pain and nausea from surgery, cancer treatment, and pregnancy. There's also evidence that acupuncture can help relieve a number of other problems, including headaches, period cramps, low back pain, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, asthma, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Some acupuncturists have had success using acupuncture to treat depression and anxiety, although most people would not consider it to be the first choice of treatment for these conditions. back to top

What is a session like?
An acupuncture session begins with a thorough assessment of your symptoms. Your acupuncturist may ask you a lot of questions that seem to have nothing to do with your problem, such as Do you tend to be too hot or too cold? Are there certain foods that you crave? How is your energy level? He or she will also check your pulse at various points on your body.

As part of your assessment, many acupuncturists also look at your tongue and check your body odors. (For this reason, you shouldn't wear perfume or any other scented product to your session, as it may interfere with your diagnosis.) Using all these clues, your practitioner figures out where your qi may be blocked and which meridian points should be stimulated to help unblock it.

Next, you'll be asked to lie down on a treatment table. You may not need to get undressed as long as you're wearing loose, comfortable clothes that allow easy access to your acupuncture points. (Your acupuncturist may need to slide up your shirt to get to your belly or back, for example, or lift up your pant leg to get to your ankle or knee.) He or she uses needles that are as thin as a hair, much thinner than the ones used to give injections or draw blood. Many people never feel them going in; others report a slight tingling or sense of warmth. Although techniques vary, a typical session may involve inserting 5 to 15 needles and leaving them in for 10 to 20 minutes.

Most people find an acupuncture treatment to be a peaceful and relaxing experience. Once the needles are in place, some may feel a sense of deep calm and well-being, while others get a rush of emotions. Many people simply fall asleep. Your first treatment may run anywhere from an hour to two hours. Follow-up sessions generally last between 45 minutes and an hour. Side effects are rare, although some people do report feeling a little worse after an acupuncture treatment before they start feeling better. back to top

What is a typical course of treatment?
Depending on what condition you are treating, treatment may range from 4 to 10 acupuncture sessions, scheduled once or twice a week. (It's rare for a single treatment to do the trick.) Experts say that you should be able to tell after six treatments whether acupuncture is helping you. If your treatments do help, you may be asked to come back once a month for a while and then once every three months or so to keep your body on track. back to top

Will my health insurance pay for it?
Although acupuncture is one of the most popular alternative therapies, it's rare for it to be covered completely by health insurance. Some insurance plans have started to offer acupuncture at a discount, but it's still not cheap.

The cost of a first acupuncture treatment may range anywhere from 75 to 150 dollars, with follow-up sessions costing 45 to 90 dollars. Fortunately, many practitioners use a "sliding scale"—meaning they'll charge different amounts, depending on what people can afford. back to top

How can I find an acupuncturist?
As with many alternative therapies, the best way to find an acupuncturist is often through word of mouth. Ask your friends or your health professional if they can refer you to someone they like and have had success with. Another possibility is to request a list of qualified acupuncturists in your area from the National Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance, 253-851-6896, or the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, 323-937-5514.

Before you set up an appointment, though, it's important to call up the acupuncturists on your list and ask a few questions. You may want to print out the following list and give it to your parents or an adult who will be going with you to the appointment.
  • Are you certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM)? (You can also find this out by calling the NCCAOM at 703-548-9004.) If not, steer clear.
  • Are you licensed to practice in this state? Acupuncturists must be licensed, certified, or registered to practice in the state they work in.
  • Do you use new, sterilized needles for every patient? Most acupuncturists do, but it's important for your safety to be certain.
  • How many kids and adolescents do you generally treat a week? Make sure he or she has experience treating other kids your age.
  • What results can I expect from my treatment, and how long should it take for me to notice any benefit? Knowing what to expect in advance can help you decide sooner rather than later whether a treatment is working for you.
  • How much do you charge, and do you have a sliding scale? You may be able to shop around and find a good acupuncturist at a reasonable price. back to top
If you're thinking about having acupuncture to treat a specific health condition, it's a good idea to talk with your health professional first. That way he or she can help you figure out whether acupuncture is benefiting you. If your acupuncturist prescribes herbs as part of your treatment, ask your health professional about having your liver function checked during the course of your treatment to be sure the herbs are not doing any harm. Never go to any acupuncturist who does not use new, sterilized needles for each patient. Doing so will put you at risk for contracting hepatitis and other serious diseases. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/2/2001