For thousands of years, practitioners of Chinese medicine have
believed that blockages in the body’s “life energy” — chi — are responsible for
illness and disease. Acupuncture and other traditional Chinese treatments seek
to restore the natural flow of chi and return the body to harmony.
Yet you don’t have to believe in ancient theory to believe in
the power of acupuncture. Many Western researchers contend that
acupuncture’s benefits can be explained in their terms. Acupuncture needles may
stimulate nerve endings under the skin, sending impulses to the brain that
result in the release of pain-easing endorphins and other hormones. Some
researchers using brain scans have found that acupuncture increases blood flow
to the thalamus, which is responsible for relaying pain messages to the rest of
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health
Organization (WHO) formally recognize acupuncture as a method of pain relief. An
NIH advisory panel has concluded that acupuncture is a useful treatment for
fibromyalgia, headache, asthma and other conditions. Hundreds of acupuncture
studies are underway to determine just how effective acupuncture may be for
conditions ranging from arthritis to CFIDS.
“I have been treating chronic fatigue syndrome with Chinese
medicine, including acupuncture, since 1985,” says Maoshing Ni, PhD, DOM, a
doctor of oriental medicine in Santa
Calif. “I have seen it work. Certainly,
people have different beliefs about how it works, but the bottom line to me is
that it is effective.”
Stick-y treatment The main tool in acupuncture
is a hair-thin, flexible needle. Skilled practitioners insert a series of
needles in specific points just under the skin. In Chinese medicine, these
points are located along meridians, the channels through which chi flows. These
points correspond to body systems or organs — the heart, the kidneys or the
spleen, for instance — that may be suffering from blockages of chi.
Western acupuncturists use many of the same points; although
they may not agree with the meridian theory, practice has shown that the points
can be effective for relieving pain and other symptoms.
The treatment is, by nature, somewhat invasive. Insertion of
the needles can be a little uncomfortable for some people, although they rarely
cause serious pain. Some patients may also feel mild tingling or burning
sensations once the needles are in place.
The placement and duration of the needle insertions varies by
symptom. Generally, a dozen or so needles are used during each treatment, and
they may remain in place for anywhere from to 40 minutes. Practitioners may move needles or twist
them slightly during treatment to achieve desired effects.
Sessions are usually held weekly. A typical series of
treatments may last for several months. In some cases, the treatment is ongoing,
as in chiropractic regimens.
Putting it together The first time you visit an
acupuncturist, expect him or her to take a thorough medical history. You’ll be
asked about your symptoms, current medications and other health conditions that
may conflict with treatments.
In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is practiced in
conjunction with a number of other treatments, including herbal remedies,
meditation and dietary changes. Dr. Ni says that he devises an individualized
program for each patient.
“A typical diagnosis for chronic fatigue syndrome would
involve kidney-adrenal exhaustion, spleen-stomach digestion deficiency, liver
stagnation and blockage, and then a disturbed spirit,” Dr. Ni says. “Mainly I
think we’re looking at the overtaxation of one’s vital energy resources.
Treatment with Chinese medicine would involve trying to resolve those issues.”
CFIDS patient would
begin a new dietary regimen — including organic foods supplemented with
digestive enzymes. Herbal remedies will also be a part of the protocol, as well
as meditation and treatment for sleep disorders. Gentle exercise will also be
introduced according to the patient’s ability to handle it.
But of all the treatments, Dr. Ni says, acupuncture seems to
deliver the most immediate benefit. “The other things take more time. But
patients can often feel a more immediate change with acupuncture. After they get
off the table, they get more of an immediate energy boost.”
Self-help points If you’re interested in
checking out acupuncture, you can start with a little self-administered routine.
It doesn’t involve needles — just a little pressure.
“Not everyone has access to acupuncture, but certainly they
have a finger they can use,” Dr. Ni says. “It will stimulate in much the same
way as an acupuncture needle.”
Stomach point #36 is located just below the knee. Dr. Ni says
he uses it to help increase immune function in his patients. This point is found
about three inches below the outside of the knee. Feel for the head of your shin
bone, and then apply pressure just behind it. Press steadily for about one
minute, just hard enough to feel a little tenderness.
Kidney point #3 is located in the ankle. “This fortifies the
kidney-adrenal system, which is so important in people with CFS,” Dr. Ni says.
“The kidneys and adrenal systems have virtually become exhausted.” The point is
in the inside back of the ankle, between the Achilles tendon and the ankle bone.
Again, apply firm pressure for about one minute.
The third area, known as large intestine #4, is a common point
used to relieve pain. It’s located in the web of the hand, between the thumb and
index finger. To find it, make the “OK” sign and feel for the bump of muscle on
the back of the hand. Press on that point firmly for about one minute. Dr. Ni
says this point helps fight bacterial, fungal and microbial problems as well as
Finding an acupuncturist There are more than
10,000 licensed acupuncture practitioners in the
Licensing is done on a state-by-state basis, and requirements can vary widely.
Physicians are permitted to perform acupuncture after receiving proper training.
Look for a doctor who has been certified by the American Board of Medical
Non-MDs — including naturopaths (ND), chiropractors (DC) and
professional acupuncturists (LAc) — can receive state licenses for acupuncture
after completing training and passing examinations. Because state requirements
vary, it’s best to look for someone who has been certified by a professional
organization such as The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and
Some insurance plans will pay for acupuncture treatments with
physician referrals. If your doctor can’t recommend a practitioner, Dr. Ni
suggests checking with your chiropractor, massage therapist or even friends who
have had good experiences with an acupuncturist.