5 ways acupuncture can improve your health

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Western medicine in the 21st century is turning to ancient knowledge and techniques to alleviate many conditions and pains that have eluded even the most highly developed medical and pharmacological treatments.

Acupuncture is one such ancient practice, a form of traditional Chinese medicine based on the belief that vital energy known as qi flows through the body along a network of meridians or pathways which affect a person's spiritual, emotional, physical and mental state. If those paths are blocked, the body reacts negatively, often in the form of pain, nausea and other dysfunction. Once those paths are unblocked, symptoms can be relieved or even eliminated.

Acupuncturists apply needles, heat, pressure and other treatments to one or more places on the skin, known as acupuncture points, where the energy flow has stagnated. These points are believed to stimulate the brain, releasing neurochemicals and hormones, creating deep relaxation, and easing pain and dysfunction.

The practice of acupuncture has been widely embraced as a complementary therapy in treating a wide range of health issues, including these five areas of focus:

- Chronic pain. Acupuncture is recognized by groups such as the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization to be effective in the treatment of a wide variety of medical problems associated with chronic muscle, bone and nerve pain. Chronic pain conditions shown to be significantly relieved through acupuncture include neck and back pain, migraines and other forms of headache, arthritis and other painful joint issues, musculoskeletal problems, such as fibromyalgia; nerve pain, such as peripheral neuropathy, and pain associated with muscular overuse, such as tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome.

- Mood and mental health. Blockages of energy flow in the body not only create physical symptoms such as pain, but also lead to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Acupuncture treats them symptoms and causes of mood swings by balancing the energies within the body, thereby minimizing the frequency and intensity of those swings. Acupuncture increases endorphin, dopamine and norepinephrine levels, which produces a positive mood state.

- Addiction recovery. One of the key behavioral health areas in which acupuncture plays an increasing role is in substance detoxification and addiction recovery. Auricular or ear acupuncture is a popular form of this treatment that involves shallow insertion of a thin needle at various points on the skin of the external ear to help ease withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. Acupuncture is thought to reduce the addictive effects of drugs by decreasing the amount of dopamine released when the drug is used. Without that surge, the high (and the craving for the drug) is diminished.

- Women's health. From the first signs of menstruation to the final stage of menopause, human females experience pain and other challenges for which relief can be elusive. For young women just beginning to menstruate, acupuncture can help relieve cramps and pre-menstrual syndrome. Acupuncture helps restrain heavy bleeding and pain associated with fibroids and endometriosis. For women who are trying to become pregnant, acupuncture can help address problems of infertility. It can be very helpful in bringing on childbirth, and after childbirth can be helpful in restoring and replenishing energy. For women in menopause, hot flashes and night sweats can be greatly reduced to make this time of transition more comfortable. Treatment focuses on grounding the heat, stopping excessive sweating and restoring restfulness.

- Cancer treatment. For cancer patients experiencing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, acupuncture has been shown to alleviate pain and many other side effects, including fatigue, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, hot flashes, depression and sleeping problems. It is one of several integrative therapies now available to cancer patients as part of their individual treatment plans.

Acupuncture can be a powerful addition to a patient's care and open the pathway to recovery. It's safe, effective and produces a feeling of relaxation and well-being in almost all the patients we treat.

Regina Touhey Serkin, is a licensed acupuncturist with a master's of science degree in in traditional Oriental medicine. She is a doctoral candidate in Chinese medicine and is a private practitioner affiliated with Berkshire Health Systems.

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