This form of treatment originated in China some 3,000 years ago. Although widely used in Europe since early in this century and universally acclaimed for its pain-relieving qualities, it has been of interest in the United States for a much shorter time.
Physicians in the United States have not embraced acupuncture mainly because it has lacked documented scientific validity and has been taught as a practice based on Taoist philosophy passed down through the centuries with relatively little change.
A small but increasing number of US physicians have found acupuncture to be a useful part of their practice, despite the inability to explain in terms acceptable to their colleagues how they obtained favorable results by this method of treatment. Thus every day in the United States and elsewhere, thousands of patients are being treated with acupuncture for a variety of issues and reporting favorable results. Family physicians are with increasing frequency being asked about acupuncture if established medical treatments have not relieved the pain.
While traditional acupuncturists select from some 400 or more points located on hypothetical meridians, the modern acupuncturist uses a smaller number of points. Work from Albert Einstein Medical School has pointed out that many of the most effective acupuncture points coincide with the motor points commonly used in electromyography and, indeed, it has seemed that these may be the only points that need stimulation. In the treatment of pain, motor points are selected from within the same neural segment adjacent to the area of pain. Other points are selected from the extremities where the largest number of muscles are located. One of the most effective and widely used acupuncture points, Ho Ku, is located at the base of the thumb. The thumb, of all the digits and limb segments, has the largest cortical representation.
Gaining scientific support is the theory that, in part, acupuncture works through the release of brain neurotransmitters. Some evidence indicates that acupuncture induces a release of endorphins in the human brain. Electrical stimulation has been found more effective than needle twirling. Stimulation must be sufficiently above the threshold of medium-sized fibers. Too strong a stimulus, however, serves to intensify pain.
Treatment with acupuncture needles inserted deeply into muscle, as with electroacupuncture, is the most commonly used technique. With this the changes produced in the central nervous system seem to be sufficient to continue the beneficial effect long after the stimulation has ceased. However, traditional acupuncturists may utilize other forms of treatment such as moxibustion (a form of heat therapy) and a variety of massage and movement techniques.