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Considering Acupuncture?

5 things you should know

With the increasing prevalence of alternative therapy and holistic healing, acupuncture is a thriving industry. Nearly 70 percent of boomers have tried some type of alternative therapy, and acupuncture's popularity — for things as diverse as chemotherapy-induced illness to chronic headaches to arthritis — is on the rise. Many have found it to be an effective alternative to pain medication and other traditional treatments. If you're thinking of trying acupuncture, here's what you need to know.

Q: How does acupuncture work?

A: First developed in China more than 4,000 years ago, acupuncture is a foundation of traditional Chinese medicine. It's based on the flow of chi (pronounced "chee") — the energy or life force in the body. When you're healthy, your chi  flows freely through different pathways (called "meridians"), but when you're ill, the flow of your chi becomes obstructed. Acupuncture "unblocks" your chi. The most common technique involves inserting thin needles just below the skin's surface at specific points — not the direct point where the pain is located, but a point based upon the corresponding meridian. For example, if you're feeling gastrointestinal pain, an acupuncturist might insert a needle in your knee.

Q: Is acupuncture effective?

A: Acupuncture is used to treat a wide variety of ailments, from migraines to dental pain to nausea — some more effectively than others. Recent studies have shown it to be particularly effective for treating osteoarthritis and back pain, for example, while its effects on treating carpal tunnel syndrome are not as promising. Most recently, acupuncture has shown great benefits for nausea, hot flashes and other side effects of radiation cancer treatments. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has been studying acupuncture's efficacy and lists the most recent findings on its website.

Q: Is acupuncture safe?

A: Studies suggest that acupuncture is very safe — the only risks are occasional bruising and minor bleeding. These effects are minimal and not experienced in most patients, since the needles are thin and not inserted very deep into the skin. Even so, you should make sure your acupuncturist has the requisite experience and training.

Q: Does health insurance cover it?

A: Some private plans cover acupuncture and other alternative therapies, although Medicare does not. The cost varies, but initial treatments tend to cost in the range of $50 to $100, and then subsequently less after that.

Q: How do I find an acupunturist?

A: The American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine's website allows you to search for a certified practitioner in your area.