Medicine is something we usually turn to only when we are ill. But increasing numbers of New Zealanders are using acupuncture to maintain good health - sometimes in conjunction with traditional western medicines, sometimes as an alternative.
It's nothing new, of course. The text believed to be the earliest in traditional Chinese medicine, The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic, was written over 2000 years ago, with the emphasis on maintaining health and preventing disease. But acupuncture is now a treatment growing in popularity worldwide with positive results from research being carried out in fertility, immunology and its known effectiveness in the treatment of muscle and nerve pain. In this country acupuncture is recognised by health insurance companies and organisations such as Southern Cross, ACC, Winz, the Police, NZ Post and Air New Zealand.
As Jennifer Allison, who practises in Grey Lynn, explains, "The most basic view in Chinese medicine is that if we regulate our behaviour and act in harmony with the natural laws, the seasons, the weather, the diurnal rhythms of day and night and with other human beings, then we can achieve good health and longevity."
This simple idea is believed by many to have profoundly positive effects on well-being and health.
"Modern western research in public health has recently shown the same positive effects on health when we feel connected to those around us and to our natural surroundings," says Allison.
"Often it happens after people have come to acupuncture for help with a particular problem. After the problem has resolved they realise this capacity of acupuncture, and they continue to come regularly to maintain the good health that they have achieved.
"Historically, people in China would come for treatment at the change of seasons to help align their energies to the external changes taking place in the natural world and thus prevent disease."
Peter Robb, who practises on Devonport, expands on this line of thought, especially the importance of eating produce in season to maintain well-being. Now that autumn is here, Robb suggests eating pears to aid healthy lung function and he says you can never underestimate the power of chicken soup as the cold and flu season approaches.
"I treat all age groups, but the largest is the 40 years and over. This is a time we begin to recognise signs of ageing. It is the acupuncturist's job to treat symptoms and at the same time strengthen the kidney, spleen and regulate and detox the liver. Our aim is physiological and emotional balance."
Jennifer works mainly in women's health. "I treat mainly gynaecological problems. These include menstrual difficulties, PMT, all the problems associated with the childbearing years and beyond those, in menopause. I have a special interest in fertility and pregnancy.
"Acupuncture is useful in many conditions related to pregnancy ... as Western medication is often not an option because of its potential risks to the baby, so women are referred to us from their midwife or doctor."
Robb is particularly interested in how acupuncture can be used for people undergoing cancer treatments, helping them cope with nausea and boosting their immune systems. And, in China, acupuncture is one of the most popular treatments for stroke victims after the acute symptoms are contained. "After seven to 10 days, Chinese hospitals will start acupuncture, often in conjunction with physiotherapy," says Robb. "It is considered key to get onto this treatment in that golden period of time to get the best success chance of recovery."
Both Allison and Robb say they never fail to be impressed by people's power to regain their basic energy after a few treatments.
"People's own capacity to heal themselves can be quite awe-inspiring," says Allison. "All acupuncture does is just encourage them in the right direction."
What's in a name?
The correct name for acupuncture is "acupuncture and moxibustion". That's because moxibustion, which involves various methods of warming acupoints, is an integral part of treatment. Moxibustion uses a dried form of the herb mugwort, and is burned over the face on top of slices of ginger, wrapped around the needle. The way it is used produces different effects on the body.