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For more than 5,000 years, acupuncture has been used for pain relief and treatment of various ailments. Generally, in the practice of acupuncture, needles varying in length from 1/2 in. to several inches are inserted in appropriate points of the body, not necessarily near the affected organ. The needles are twirled and vibrated in specific ways; the depth of insertion also affects the treatment.
Modern technique sometimes adds electrical stimulation applied through the needles. The traditional acupuncture points (there are about 800) are arranged along 14 lines, or meridians, running the length of the body from head to foot. Many, however, are on the palm of the hand.
Today, acupuncture is widely used in China in the treatment of hay fever, headaches, and ulcers, and some types of blindness, arthritis, diarrhea, and hypertension. Acupuncture is also used as a general anesthetic during childbirth and some types of surgery.
Unlike conventional anesthesia, acupuncture does not reduce blood pressure or depress breathing. The patient stays fully conscious and there is no postoperative hangover or nausea.
Western researchers have found that the acupuncture points correspond to points on the skin having less electrical resistance than other skin areas. It has been suggested that acupuncture works by stimulating or repressing the autonomic nervous system in various ways, and there is some evidence that stimulation of the skin can affect internal organs by means of nerve reflex pathways. Since the early 1970s, when an established New York newspaper published an article about Chinese doctors using these techniques to ease abdominal pain after surgery, acupuncture has gradually become more accepted in the United States.
Many states now accredit schools of acupuncture and administer licensing examinations for nonphysicians. Some physicians are studying and using acupuncture as an adjunct treatment. In the United States, acupuncture has been used most often for pain control and drug and alcohol addiction. According to the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture is practiced by thousands of American doctors, dentists and other medical practitioners.