One of the oldest healing practices in the world, acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago. The practice of stimulating specific points on the body, often by puncturing the skin with needles, is intended to restore health by removing blockages in the flow of chi, a person’s vital energy or life force.

In the field of traditional Chinese medicine, the body is regulated by two opposing and inseparable forces: yin, which represents the cold, slow, or passive principle; and yang, which represents the hot, excited, or active principle. Good health is maintained by keeping these forces in balance, while an imbalance causes blockages in the flow of chi – the life force responsible for spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health – and subsequently leads to illness or disease. According to traditional Chinese medicine, chi travels along pathways known as meridians and can be unblocked by stimulating points on the body connected with these meridians. There are between 14 and 20 meridians in the body, and they form a weblike matrix of at least 2,000 “acupoints”.

Acupuncture became popular in America in the 1970s, incorporating traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries. It is considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine and has been claimed to be helpful in treating chronic pain, osteoarthritis, infertility, and bladder control problems. A 2008 Duke University study, for example, found that acupuncture worked better than drugs such as aspirin to reduce the severity and frequency of chronic headaches. Western scientists believe that acupuncture stimulates the brain and spinal cord to release neurochemicals and hormones that can dull pain, boost immunity, and regulate body functions.

The most common form of acupuncture involves penetrating the skin with hair-thin, solid metal needles. Though the needles deter some people, acupuncture performed correctly causes little or no pain, and complications are rare.

1. An estimated 8.2 million US adults have received acupuncture treatment at some time in their lives.

2. In most acupuncture procedures, the needle is inserted less than a half into the body, but in some cases it may occasionally extend 3 inches or more.

3. Other forms of acupuncture include using physical pressure instead of needles (acupressure), needles with electrical stimulation, heat or sound waves to stimulate acupoints, and heated glass cups that stick to the skin with a vacuumlike suction (cupping). A 2008 Swiss study found that acupuncture works equally well with or without needle penetration.

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