Acupuncture: Does it work?

Have drugs and physical therapy failed to make the difference in your quest for better health? If so, it may be time to try something a little more traditional.

By Mark Witten

Does acupuncture really work? In the summer of 2000, Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital opened an acupuncture clinic in its Wasser Pain Management Centre to treat patients suffering from chronic pain. Acupuncturist Adam Chen, who helped launch the clinic, recalls that many doctors were sceptical at first. "The treatments helped reduce the patients' use of medications, like morphine and codeine," he says. "The positive results changed quite a few doctors' minds."

Today, doctors at or affiliated with Mount Sinai routinely refer patients to the clinic for a wide variety of pain-related conditions: whiplash and other car-accident injuries, back problems, post-oper ative pain, migraine headaches, arthritic pain, sciatica, pelvic pain, neuralgia and fibromyalgia. The treatments are delivered by certified staff and senior students from the acupuncture program at Toronto's Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences, a partner in the clinic. "We treat people for pain from head to toe. Patients come to us after other modalities don't work - drugs, physical therapy and occupational therapy. About 60 to 70 percent of our patients have an effective response to acupuncture," explains acupuncturist James Fu, who teaches at Michener.

Acupuncture has been practised as part of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. However, it's now being widely accepted in North America because of its effectiveness in treating acute and chronic pain. The National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov) in the United States reports that acupuncture also may be useful as an adjunct or alternative treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, stroke, addiction, asthma, and post-operative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting. The World Health Organization (www.who.int) recognizes the use of acupuncture in treating digestive and respiratory problems, addiction, insomnia, depression and anxiety.

How does acupuncture work? An acupuncturist inserts hair-thin needles into the skin at precise points known as acupuncture points. According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is based on the theory that an essential life energy, called qi, flows through the body along channels called meridians. Each meridian is connected to a specific internal organ. When the flow of qi is blocked or out of balance, illness or pain results. The stimulation of acupuncture points along the meridians releases the blockage and promotes the smooth flow of qi, restoring health.

Western science has come up with its own partial explanation of how acupuncture works. Visit www.acupuncturetoday.com to learn how this ancient system of healing stimulates the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. The NIH, The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (www.medicalacupuncture.org) and Acupuncture.com report on studies suggesting it also works by affecting blood flow to the brain and altering brain chemistry.

With few adverse side effects, acupuncture can be useful by itself, or in combination with other therapies, for a wide range of health problems. To locate an acupuncturist near you, visit the Acupuncture Foundation of Canada Institute (www.afcinstitute.com) or Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture in Canada (www.medicinechinese.com).

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