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10 Things You Don't Know About Acupuncture


No pain, all gain: It turns out, a popular form of acupuncture can ease the painful side effects of breast cancer treatment, according to new research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monographs.

The study, led by University of Pennsylvania researchers, examined the effects of electro-acupuncture, a form of acupuncture in which a small electric current is passed between pairs of needles, in 41 breast cancer patients. Researchers found that it reduced their joint stiffness and pain by as much as 40 percent, whether or not the patient expected the therapy to work. (Joint stiffness and pain are common side effects of aromatase inhibitor, a hormonal therapy used to treat breast cancer.)

Yep, acupuncture doesn't just work through a handy-dandy placebo effect. The complementary treatment is the real deal. Never tried it? Here are nine more things you should know:

1. It doesn't hurt. Not a fan of needles? You can still get with acupuncture. "Acupuncture needles are different from medical needles in that they are very small, smooth, and conical. They don't have a sharp edge or a hole inside to cut the skin," says NYU Langone Medical Center physician Alex Moroz, MD, who combines traditional treatments with complementary healing techniques, including acupuncture, to treat musculoskeletal conditions in his patients. In some locations, such as the low back, many people don't even feel the needles, he says.

2. It makes you feel high. "People often feel a little drugged during a treatment," Dr. Moroz says. The reason: In response to the insertion of needles, the body releases feel-good endorphins and neurotransmitters that promote feelings of well-being while easing muscle tension and pain.

3. It doesn't cause scarring. Sometimes people can experience a bit of bleeding or bruising, but the marks won't hang around long, according to Dr. Moroz.

4. It has been used for thousands of years. Acupuncture is believed to have originated in China. Sharpened stones and bones that scientists believe were used to perform acupuncture date from about 6000 BCE, according to a 2011 review from the Peninsula Medical School. That's (count them) 8,000 years ago! The first text describing an organized system of acupuncture treatment appears in The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, which dates from about 100 BCE.

5. It can reduce breakouts. One review of 43 trials found that acupoint stimulation—including acupuncture, acupoint injection, acupoint catgut embedding treatment, moxibustion, and cupping—to be effective (and sometimes even better than meds!) at treating and preventing acne. Its ability to fight inflammation and strengthen the immune system may play a role, Dr. Moroz says.

6. It can help you lose weight. Research published in Acupuncture in Medicine found that ear acupuncture promotes weight loss. Acupuncture philosophies link the ear to your stomach, sleep, endocrine system, and in the end, your appetite.

7. Not all acupuncture is the same. Techniques vary depending on their place of origin and the philosophy behind their treatment. Eastern traditions, for example, typically place needles along the meridians of the body (a web-like system of channels that moves energy throughout the body), while European schools address energy more generally. What's more, some practitioners treat maladies by inserting needles in the affected area and others do so by putting needles in another part of the body, such as the ear or scalp.

8. The number of required sessions varies. Most people undergo three to 10 treatments for their issues, but a small group of people only need one or two to find relief, says Dr. Moroz. Another small portion get treatments for years.

9. It's not clear how treatment works. "We know a lot of specific individual effects," Dr. Moroz says. "We know it affects the immune system, may effect pain transmission at the level of the spinal cord, and activates different areas of brain. But we don't have any real meta-theory to explain how they all happen."