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Using needles to rid a person of backaches, headaches, indigestion and a host of other disorders may seem counterintuitive.

Acupuncture aficionados, however, will be the first to point out that these tiny needles can bring big relief.

I first tried acupuncture a decade ago to help with a chronic health condition that conventional Western medicine could not resolve. After a few months of treatments, not only was I healed but I also felt less stressed overall.

Additionally, I slept better, and got colds less often.

Acupuncture is based on a traditional Chinese model of health and illness, first outlined over 2,000 years ago in the ancient text

The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine

.

Can You Feel It

According to this system, illness and disease are caused by imbalances in a person's

qi

or

chi

(pronounced "chee").

Qi is usually described as one's life force or vital energy. It flows through the body by a series of channels called meridians. Visit an acupuncturist and you're likely to see a poster on the wall that maps out these meridians (and their corresponding acupuncture points).

There are 12 main meridians, which relate to the five major organ systems: heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach/spleen, liver/gallbladder. Acupuncture points fall along the meridians, and to treat a patient, an acupuncturist assesses imbalances in the qi and major organ systems using a person's pulse and symptom description.

Then, hair-thin acupuncture needles are inserted to redirect blocked qi flow, which harmonizes the relationship between the systems and results in relief from pain or illness.

Scientifically, exactly how acupuncture works is not well understood. For pain management, acupuncture has been proven to stimulate endorphin responses in the body, but even acupuncturist and physician Dr. Bruce Gilbert told me that doctors still don't understand how acupuncture reduces anxiety or relieves chronic conditions -- they just know that it does help.

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As Baton Rouge acupuncturist Kenneth Chow points out, "Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years and has been proven to help with many conditions, so most

patients don't really care how it works."

In both China and Japan, acupuncture is an integral part of their health care systems; since 1995, acupuncture needles have been approved for medical use by the FDA here in the U.S.

A licensed acupuncturist (LAC) trains for at least three years. Licensing regulations vary by state, but most require acupuncturists to pass the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

A growing number of traditional Western physicians are incorporating acupuncture, because, as Gilbert points out, "Our patients are going to acupuncturists, whether they tell us about it or not."

Gilbert, who runs a urology

practice in Great Neck, N.Y., is one of the directors of the

American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (AAMA).

Gilbert became interested in acupuncture after a patient of his reported relief from a chronic condition after undergoing the process. Gilbert decided to take the accelerated physician training in acupuncture offered by the AAMA, and has not been disappointed: "Time and time again, patients come in for acute events and the acupuncture is like voodoo -- it just works."

To the Point

If you're interested, both the AAMA and the

American Association of Oriental Medicine have lists of licensed acupuncturists by state.

Both Gilbert and Chow, however, advise ensuring that any acupuncturist you chose is licensed in your state. The practitioner should have a certificate in his or her office, or you can check

online.

Also, as Chow says, "Everyone's style of acupuncture may differ, but stick around with the acupuncturist through a few treatments if you feel comfortable with him or her."

Gilbert cautions acupuncture patients to make sure they can rule out serious diagnoses before relying completely on acupuncture. "A lot of patients don't trust the medical environment," Gilbert says, "but you must go to an

acupuncturist who won't keep you away from a real diagnosis."

Acupuncture costs anywhere from $75 to $120 a treatment, though a physician/acupuncturist may be slightly more. It is covered by a growing number of insurance plans -- acupuncture typically falls under the umbrella of complementary medicine.

Keep in mind, however, most conditions do require multiple treatments. Depending on the severity of the illness, this can often mean weekly, or even more frequent, visits.

Many acupuncturists will ask you to fill out a checklist of various symptoms and personality traits, as well as describe your current condition. The acupuncturist may ask to look at your tongue or check pulses on both your wrists.

Gilbert explains an important difference between acupuncture and Western medicine is that acupuncture treats the whole person: five patients with back pain might all receive different acupuncture treatments, because they present and experience their symptoms differently.

And, unlike Western medicine, "acupuncture also treats the anxiety a patient might feel about their condition," Gilbert explains. His practice sees about a 60% success rate, which "is tremendous,

as the downside

acupuncture's minimal side effects is much less compared to many medications."

There are a number of different styles of acupuncture: some acupuncturists focus on the five organ systems, the meridians, or even the use of gentle electrical stimulation with the needles.

Treatment usually takes place with the patient clothed, as most acupuncturists focus on points on the ears, arms, hands, legs and feet. After an initial assessment, the acupuncturist will have the patient lie on a table (face up or face down, depending on the condition), and then insert the needles.

There are two main styles of needle insertion: the Japanese-based style, using thin plastic tubes to guide the needles and reduce discomfort, and the Chinese style, in which needles are inserted freehand.

The needles are quite thin, and are left in for twenty to forty-five minutes; in most cases, they do not hurt.

However, if the patient's qi is "blocked" in a particular spot, there may be a slight pinch or hot sensation when the needles are inserted. But the discomfort is only temporary. Once all the needles are in, the patient often experiences a profound sense of relaxation.

Though chronic conditions such as back pain or gastritis may take multiple acupuncture sessions to resolve, the time spent will be well worth it: Nothing is more precious than good health.

Penelope Dane is a writer and sociologist living in Baton Rouge, La. She is currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction and conducting research on teen poetry.