Acupuncture is one of several ancient traditional techniques used in Chinese medicine; the others are herbs, exercise, massage, and dietary treatments. Although traditional acupuncturists used very fine needles, modern acupuncturists may also use laser acupuncture. The sterile needles are inserted along what the Chinese call meridians, or energy pathways, in the body. Traditional acupuncture needles were gold, but today's needles are usually made of stainless steel. Most acupuncturists also use acupressure, either alone or in combination with acupuncture. Acupressure is similar in some ways, as the therapist presses specific spots along the meridians, but uses thumbs and fingers instead of a needle.
The theory behind acupuncture has to do with energy flow in the body. The Chinese believe that energy or Qi (pronounced “chee”) flows along the meridians. Trigger points located along the meridians affect certain areas, organs or functions of the body. If something like an injury blocks the meridians, it can cause pain or affect body functions, like hormonal secretion, and cause disease. The practitioner places a needle in one of the trigger points to change or improve the flow of Qi. Modern scientists are still trying to determine exactly how acupuncture works. Some think the needles might stimulate specific nerves that lie under the trigger points. Others feel it might improve the circulation.
Headaches and chronic pain often respond well to acupuncture. Regular acupuncture treatments may even prevent or decrease the frequency of migraines. Acupuncture has also been found effective in treating nausea after surgery or chemotherapy, and there are indications it can help with motion sickness. In addition to the musculoskeletal conditions where most of the acupuncture research has been focused, this treatment has also been used for insomnia, menstrual cramps, irritable bowel syndrome and urinary incontinence. Acupuncture may also be helpful in treating mental health conditions such as anxiety and to reduce stress.