The practice of acupuncture goes back over 2,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine, but the word acupuncture comes from the Latin words acus (“needle”) and punctura (“prickling”). In this case, that's as close to a crystal clear description as you can get. Prickling needles.

If you decide upon acupuncture to help treat your symptoms, the acupuncturist will first interview you to gain an understanding of your complaint. Then he will insert needles at certain points on your body, creating a specific pattern. The points selected depend upon the nature of your ailment. You may feel a slight pricking sensation, but the procedure is not painful. Once the pattern has been completed, you will rest quietly for a period of time, perhaps half an hour. Then the acupuncturist removes the needles and sends you on your way.

The Tradition

The Chinese believe that energy, known as qi, flows throughout the body along specific meridians or pathways. If you become ill, it is because this energy has become blocked in some fashion. This blockage disrupts the natural balance between yin and yang, the body's opposing forces. Acupuncture brings the yin and yang back into balance, the normal flow of qi is unblocked, and health is restored.

The Modern Version

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, acupuncture needles act upon the central nervous system (CNS), which then responds by releasing endorphins (the body's “feel good” hormones) and immune system cells that diffuse throughout the CNS, promoting healing. In essence, acupuncture uses the body's own capacity for healing.

What's the Connection to Depression?

The connection to depression is a logical one. A 1998 study at the University of Arizona, funded by the NIH's Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), found that, following acupuncture treatment, 43 percent of those participating in the study reported a reduction in depressive symptoms. The control group reported a 22 percent reduction in symptoms.

Acupuncture may play a role in altering brain chemistry by effecting changes in the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones. This accounts for the general feeling of well-being and mood elevation that occurs following an acupuncture treatment.

Are There Any Risks?

As with any invasive procedure, there is risk. Using a licensed acupuncturist is one way to lessen the chances of any mishap. Acupuncture inserts fine needles into the skin, so if the needles are not inserted properly, there is a possibility of hematoma, nerve, or organ damage. Needles that have not been properly autoclaved (sterilized) may transfer diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. To prevent that possibility, most practitioners use one-time use needles and dispose of them after that one use. The other option is to autoclave needles after each use.


The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) provides testing for acupuncturists. Since many states require acupuncturists to be licensed, passing this test is a prerequisite for licensing. Check with NCCAOM to learn the requirements for licensing in your state.

Finding an Acupuncturist

Your health care provider may refer you to a licensed acupuncture practitioner, or you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that your doctor is trained in this discipline. More and more practitioners of traditional western medicine are becoming trained in acupuncture. Also, your insurance may cover part or all of the costs of this treatment.

Check with your insurance carrier to see if preauthorization is required. Just as you inform your primary health care provider about any alternative or complementary protocols you are following, be sure to inform your acupuncturist of any prescription medications you are using.

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