For those who haven’t experienced acupuncture for themselves, the idea of inserting needles into the skin for healing purposes may sound bizarre, or even frightening. For a growing number of Americans, though, this traditional Chinese therapy has become the key to a healthy, pain-free life.

First practiced in China more than 2000 years ago, acupuncture has been in use in North America for only a few decades. In fact, the practice was virtually unknown in this part of the world before U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China was telecast into millions of living rooms in 1971.

Acupuncture involves the inserting of extremely thin, sterile needles into the patient’s skin at specific points on the body. It is most commonly used to treat chronic pain conditions, such as Fibromyalgia, headaches, back pain, joint pain, osteoarthritis, dental pain, and nausea related to chemotherapy, among others.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe that acupuncture works by balancing the flow of energy or life force, known as qi or chi (pronounced “chee”), through pathways in your body called meridians.

Many Western practitioners of acupuncture take a different view, though. According to modern understanding, acupuncture stimulates nerves, muscles, and connective tissue, increasing blood flow and causing the body’s natural painkillers to be more effective.

What to Expect
If you’ve considered trying acupuncture to treat a health problem, you can start by speaking with your doctor. He or she may have a recommendation for a reputable practitioner in your area. If your doctor is skeptical about the benefits of acupuncture, or doesn’t have a referral, try asking friends or colleagues. You may be surprised to find out how many people you know have undergone the treatment.

Most acupuncturists will begin with a consultation session. This will involve a discussion of your medical history and the reason for your visit, an examination of the area that causes you pain, as well as your tongue’s color and shape, facial coloring, and pulse. Expect this initial evaluation to take up to an hour.

After the initial consultation, the acupuncturist will create a treatment plan, usually spread out over six to 12 sessions, and decide what insertion points make the most sense for your individual condition. The insertion points may or may not be located near the point of pain or discomfort. If one or more insertion points requires the removal of clothes, your acupuncturist will provide you with a gown or sheet to preserve your modesty.

The actual insertion of the needles is relatively painless. A typical treatment plan involves between five and 20 needles per visit. Once the needles have been inserted, the acupuncturist may manipulate them gently for maximum effectiveness. After 10 to 20 minutes, during which you will just lie still and relax, the needles are removed. As with insertion, removal is usually painless.

This process is repeated, usually once a week or so, until the treatment plan is completed. Results are mixed. Some people report a dramatic decrease in pain and discomfort after a session, while others experience no improvement whatsoever. Medical studies have found acupuncture treatment to be more effective than a placebo at relieving chronic pain.

As with any alternative therapy, be sure to consult your doctor before deciding whether acupuncture may be helpful for any given medical condition.

Originally posted in Farmers’ Almanac