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Health & Balance

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Acupuncture Gains Acceptance in Western Health Care


But how can the ancient Chinese concept of Qi translate into Western medical terms?

"There's a lot of basic science work that's been going on for many years to understand the mechanism of acupuncture," Berman tells WebMD. "They feel that when you put the needle into acupuncture points, you are stimulating different [chemicals] in the brain. When different [chemicals] are stimulated, they have different effects in the body."

In addition to the traditional Chinese explanation of energy imbalances, there's another theory, Berman says. "A form of 'gate control' operates within the body, regulating pain. When you put a counter-stimulation in a different spot -- not at the pain site -- you send a signal that stops the sensation." Some argue that the placebo effect, as well as the synergy between patient and practitioner, may be at work, Berman tells WebMD, "But that's part of all medicine," he says. "So placebo effect may be part of the mechanism, but I think there's probably an effect beyond that."

Acupuncture is part of many drug treatment programs, says Janet Konefal, PhD, a certified acupuncturist and chief of complementary medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Studies have shown acupuncture is "helpful in getting cleaner faster," she says. "It reduces craving, improves sleep, helps people think clearer if they get enough treatments. The result is that people stay in treatment. [The] biggest problem with substance abuse treatment is dropout." At last count, she says, 600 substance-abuse clinics -- many of them government-funded -- were using acupuncture.

Cancer seems to be among acupuncture's few therapeutic limitations, says Cyrus: "We don't treat cancer. ... Once someone has cancer, there's very little someone like me can do except to treat quality of life. We manage side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy quite well. And that goes a long way in terms of the patient's quality of life. Also, [acupuncture] can help keep white blood-cell count elevated."

In fact, every patient's acupuncture experience seems to be different. "No two patients react the same way to this in terms of number of visits, in terms of reaction to treatment," Cyrus tells WebMD. "Sometimes we see miraculous changes. I've had patients who in one visit, it took care of their problem. I've had some come every week for two years."

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