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Scientists Seek Clues for Acupuncture's Success

Learn how acupuncture might help when Western medicine doesn't have an answer.

The Science Behind Acupuncture continued...

Over the years, research has shown that acupuncture affects a variety of biological systems -- releasing hormones, disabling receptors, and activating anti-inflammatory chemicals. It has been suggested that the

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healing power of acupuncture comes from its effect on the nervous system. It might aid the pain-killing effect of chemicals called endorphins or help cells from the immune system fight infection, according to the NIH.

Intricate networks of connective tissue -- which extend throughout the body -- may be at the crux of acupuncture, according to other studies. It's evident when an acupuncture needle is inserted into the body. Like a fork in a plate of spaghetti, the needle grabs up tiny bits of connective tissue and nerve bundles between muscles.


The body's pull on that tissue is intense, which both the practitioner and the patient can feel, says Wayne. "That needle is being held by the body, it gets sucked in. If you turn the needle a little bit, it is grasped by the body, the body doesn't want to let go," Wayne explains.

The turning and manipulation of that needle instantly affects the connective tissue in its plane -- including more distant points in the plane. All this has been documented using high resolution ultrasound, Wayne says.

Acupuncture is not mainstream yet, Wayne tells WebMD. "But a lot of progress has been made. Some of that is because of credibility gained from clinical trials. The continued momentum of consumer usage and satisfaction has driven a lot of the research. People are using acupuncture, spending money on it, and they have some valid questions whether this is the best use of their resources."

Acupuncturists are better trained today than they were in the past, he adds. "They're trained in a way that they can integrate better with conventional medicine. They can speak articulately about research going on and limitations of that research. It legitimizes what we do in a way that makes sense."

Bottom Line: Finding an Acupuncturist

If you're interested in trying acupuncture, be sure to tell your doctor first. People with bleeding problems, an active infection, and other health problems aren't advised to try it. To find a certified acupuncturist, your doctor may be able to help. Friends may have suggestions. Check with major academic medical centers. Check with the American Academy of Medical Acupuncturists.

A qualified acupuncturist gets thousands of hours of training. A physician with acupuncture training, however, gets only 200 hours or so of training. "There's a big difference," says Wayne. A qualified acupuncturist will be licensed through state and national boards. Ask the practitioner about his or her years of clinical experience -- that also makes a difference.

With increasing studies of acupuncture, it's been shown that safety "is phenomenally good," Wayne tells WebMD. "The adverse effects are very, very low with a trained acupuncturist. Some conditions where licensed acupuncturist would know what they can and can't do. In pregnant women, there are certain areas you wouldn't touch. But safety is the first thing you're taught," he says.

Edited by Louise Chang, MD on March 01, 2006

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