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Acupuncture is a healing technique based on traditional Chinese medicine that involves placing needles at a number of locations on the body. There are 400 such acupuncture “meridians,” each tied to a specific set of health problems. For many, the thought of having dozens of acupuncture needles jabbed into their skin may be frightening. A really good acupuncturist, however, will be able to place the needles without the patient feeling them, or with only a slight sensation of pressure.

For patients, the benefits of acupuncture can range from minor to significant depending on the circumstances and the skill of the practitioner. But how does it work? No one knows for certain exactly how or why acupuncture works to produce beneficial health effects, but there is no shortage of theories.

One theory claims that by touching certain specific points in the nervous system, nerve pathways are activated, “affecting various physiological systems in the brain as well as in the periphery,” according to medicinenet.com. Others suggest that the needles activate the release of endorphins, serotonin and other chemicals in the body, stimulating healing and pain relief. Studies have shown that lowered blood pressure and increased endorphins result from acupuncture. A slightly different theory claims that sticking the needles at these points stimulates them and thus reduces obstacles to the flow of energy, making it possible for the body to heal itself.

Skeptics claim that any health benefits from acupuncture should be attributed to the “placebo effect” and not to any real, objective physiological change in the body. In essence, they believe that it is the patient’s own expectations (reinforced by the acupuncturist) and not the treatment itself that may help to reduce a patient’s perceived symptoms. One general practitioner commented, “That’s not medicine, that’s showbiz!” But one careful study showed that placing needles at the wrong spots was not nearly as effective as placing needles at the correct, acupuncture “meridians.” Both sets of patients participating in this study did not know if they were getting the real therapy or not, but the benefits of accurate placement were clear, if only marginal.

There have been numerous accounts, however, of startlingly positive results attributed to acupuncture. One patient, named Sally Wright, had been having severe headaches since her teen years. Medical doctors had tried nearly everything, but nothing worked. When she was advised to try a much stronger drug with severe side effects, she searched for another alternative. “I had two sessions [of acupuncture] a week for two weeks,” said Wright, “then one a week and finally one a month.” In less than 2 months, Wright was virtually free of all symptoms.

In another case, while training for her first triathlon, Kimberly Adams, 33, was stopped by debilitating neck pain. She saw a number of health professionals, but none were able to help her. The intense pain continued non-stop. After 3 weeks of unrelenting agony, she became increasingly desperate to fix the problem and tried acupuncture. During her third visit, the acupuncturist accomplished what other professionals had not. While wriggling an acupuncture needle in Adams’s lower leg, the therapist massaged the suffering neck muscle. Suddenly, the neck muscle started to relax. Within 40 seconds, Adams experienced major relief. The next day, all symptoms were gone. Months later, Adams completed her second triathlon, entirely free of the pain that had nearly debilitated her.

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