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What Is It?

Acupuncture is a technique that involves inserting very thin metal needles into the skin at precise points on the body to clear energy channels, with the aim of restoring and maintaining health. The spots of insertion are picked based on a complex network of lines of energy, termed meridians. Meridians are thought to encircle the body like global lines of longitude and latitude.

Acupuncture is a mainstay of traditional Chinese medicine, which has been practiced for thousands of years. The Chinese healing tradition sees the body as a delicate balance of yin and yang. These are two opposing, but inseparable forces. According to traditional Chinese medicine, disease occurs when the forces of yin and yang are out of balance.

Imbalance, it is believed, blocks the flow of qi, a vital energy that regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance, along meridians. By inserting needles at specific points on the body that connect with these meridians, acupuncture is believed to unblock the flow of qi, restoring health to the body and mind.

Western medicine explains acupuncture's effects within a different framework. Some Western scientists believe that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system, signaling the body to release various substances including endorphins, immune system cells, opioids, neurotransmitters, and neurohormones. These may help control pain, change how the body experiences pain, and promote physical and emotional well-being. Some research also indicates that acupuncture influences involuntary central nervous functions, such as blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature regulation.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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