Since then, acupuncture has evolved into a sophisticated system of treating the mind, body and spirit. Although it can be used to treat current diseases, its highest use is as preventative therapy. As it induces a state of well-being and relaxation, it simultaneously reduces all kinds of pain, aches and discomfort.
While most people shun the thought of being stuck by needles, acupuncture patients delight in their use. The acupuncture needle is not the same as the hypodermic needle that's used when you go the physician to get a shot.
While both are sterile and sharp, the acupuncture needle is much thinner, almost thread-like, and isn't a "cutting needle." Correctly inserted, the acupuncture needle shouldn't cause pain, although it might cause a dull, pleasant, achy feeling when it hits the right spot. It's the same kind of feeling you get when someone massages those "Oooh!" points we all have.
At the acupuncture school where we studied in Japan, students were not allowed to insert needles into a human being until they could insert one into a sleeping animal without waking it.
Acupuncture wasn't well known in the West until 1970, when a reporter, James Reston, accompanied President Nixon to China. While there, Reston developed acute appendicitis and was treated surgically. During his recovery period, acupuncture was used to treat his pain.
He later told his story in The New York Times, which helped spark this country's initial interest in acupuncture. Shortly thereafter, Western researchers traveled to China to witness open-heart surgery, abdominal surgery, brain surgery and dental surgery -- all done with either acupuncture anesthesia alone or acupuncture aided by a small amount of pain medicine.
To this day, most Americans think the use of acupuncture is to treat pain only. In truth, the Chinese use acupuncture for much more, including non-specific symptoms such as fatigue.
They might also use acupuncture to treat neurological diseases such as recovering from a stroke or to treat asthma, tinnitus, insomnia, immune disorders and much more.
What's more fascinating about acupuncture is its ability to cue into emotional states quickly and easily and treat them not as psychological sub-conditions but as part of a mind-body continuum. While studying with an acupuncture master in Japan, we were amazed as he taught us how to diagnose patients simply by taking their pulse. He repeatedly and correctly told patients what their disease state was, what they were feeling and if and when they could expect to feel better.
We, as Western physicians, couldn't fathom doing this by a simple exam. It astounded us that there was no Western equivalent. It was also remarkable how the patients seemed to float out of the treatment rooms -- a notably different experience compared to the typical departure from a physician's office in Western medicine.
No one exactly knows how acupuncture works. What we do know is that when acupuncture needles are inserted just under the skin in various parts of the body, certain changes take place. Scientific studies have recently proven that the nervous system functions differently, blood flow in the brain re-routes itself and various chemicals are released, both at the site of the needle insertion and in the nervous system itself. All this results in what's always been known as "natural healing."
How easy is it to learn? Clearly, just about anyone can stick in a needle (in Ohio you need to be an M.D.). This takes just a few minutes to learn.
The art is in the connecting of the dots. It's knowing where to place the needles that makes all the difference, and that takes a lifetime of learning. For us, the most satisfying feeling is the immediate change that takes place for the patient practically in front of our eyes.
While writing this column, we discussed acupuncture with several colleagues. Dr. James Leonard, an orthopedic surgeon who started doing acupuncture in 1996, recently left a successful practice in order to perform acupuncture on a full-time basis. Asked of his passion for acupuncture, he said, "It was the increased satisfaction, knowing that I could help more people avoid surgery with a relatively painless, simple maneuver to help them heal."
Some of Dr. Leonard's recent successes include a college football player who couldn't run due to a torn hamstring. Despite physical therapy, he wasn't healing, and he came to Dr. Leonard seeking help. After just one acupuncture treatment, he was pain free and competed 10 days later.
Dr. Leonard also treated a high-level gymnast whom he assisted through intense competition. He performed surgery to treat an avulsion fracture and acupuncture to treat her aches and pains. The treatment, integrated with chiropractic and massage, gave her much relief from her pain and enhanced her performance. Other patients with back, knee and shoulder ailments got better -- the list goes on and on.
Dr. Liz Woolford, a family physician, said she went into acupuncture because she was frustrated treating all kinds of pain with "little more to offer than a pill and a prescription for physical therapy." In addition, many of her perimenopausal patients were asking her opinion about alternatives to estrogen, and she found herself looking at various options. Acupuncture has allowed Dr. Woolford to be a more holistic healer and has given her a tool to help people enhance their lives.
Dr. John Sacco, a radiation oncologist, explained his motivation for practicing this treatment: "Acupuncture is all about keeping people in balance and intervening in a preventative manner before chronic illness occurs."
All the physicians we spoke to agree on one thing: A patient should be evaluated and treated by an M.D. first, and acupuncture should be considered as simply one treatment option. And although acupuncture can be used to treat many conditions, it clearly works better in certain areas -- myofascial pain; fibromyalgia; migraine and tension headaches; PMS; and irritable bowel syndrome being just some of the problems that are well treated with acupuncture.
Should you wish to discuss acupuncture treatment, find a physician who has at least 300 hours of training and is certified by the American Academy of Medical Acupuncturists.
ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE is a monthly column by the Amoils, medical directors of the Alliance Institute for Integrative Medicine. Contact them at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, OH 45202 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org