Claims for the merits of acupuncture are many, and for thousands of years people have been getting stuck with needles for every imaginable ailment.
Some say this ancient Chinese practice can cure everything from mild chronic pain and emotional disorders to insomnia and obesity.
And even if there's nothing wrong with you, they say, if you have some acupuncture anyway you'll feel even better.
But is acupuncture really all it's cracked up to be? Some who have tried it say it doesn't work at all. Not one tiny little bit. Others swear by it. One friend had an absolute emotional catharsis she attributed to the insertion of a particular needle during a session.
So what should your expectations be when you fork out the roughly $90 a session it costs?
The World Health Organization examined the studies a few years back and developed a list of a dozen ailments definitely treatable by acupuncture, including low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and post-operative pain. In terms of insomnia, female infertility, schizophrenia, tobacco dependence and a host of other conditions, the org concluded the treatment could be useful but that further studies were needed.
Even those who praise acupuncture for its broad healing powers caution that it is not a cure-all but, rather, one therapy to be used in tandem with others. If you need to lose weight, don't turn to this as a magical substitute for eating less and exercising more.
And be careful who you choose to stick you. One major variable determining outcomes is that acupuncturists use different techniques and have different levels of experience. At the moment, there are no regulations in Ontario as to who can or cannot puncture you, but according to Ministry of Health rep Dan Strasbourg, Ontario has held a series of public consultations to explore regulation.
One study revealed that an estimated 35 per cent of acupuncturists used improperly sterilized needles, so infection is a big risk. Other complications can include pain - sometimes intense - and drowsiness. Organ punctures are also a possibility, though with a good practitioner this is highly unlikely. Which is all to say, make sure your needler has credentials.
What the experts say "The Western explanation - only about 50 years old - says when you put a needle into an acupuncture point you're stimulating a nerve and the stimulus goes along the peripheral nerves and through the spinal chord, stimulates endorphins and keeps going to the brain. This is how you get analgesia, which controls pain. To understand the Chinese approach, you have to understand the concept of yin and yang energy. Traditional Chinese acupuncture points are the same as Western ones. Acupuncture can treat any kind of pain, whether it's musculoskeletal or neurological. We cannot cure cancer with acupuncture, but we can make life more comfortable."
SONA TAHAN , Acupuncture Foundation, Toronto
"Studies suggest acupuncture works with genital pain and headaches and is helpful with insomnia. We are about to start a study to see whether it's effective with fatigue related to multiple sclerosis. I think acupuncture changes the input of information to the nervous system, stimulating certain fibres or causing the release of certain neurotransmitters. If it doesn't work, you have to look at the technique. It's when you do standardized techniques and look at overall results that you know whether something works. Drugs don't work for everybody either. The skill of the acupuncturist is really important."
ALLAN GORDON , MD, director, Wasser Pain Management Centre, Toronto
"We don't use acupuncture for weight loss unless the person is following a diet and exercising. Acupuncture is just an extra push to boost the metabolism and minimize cravings. In Chinese medicine all cravings have meanings. A desire for sweets is related to the spleen, so the person needs balancing of the spleen energy. Salty stuff relates to kidney imbalances. [Our treatment] takes two months. I also prescribe the root of a plant, Radix noto-ginseng, to be taken for about two months, which combined with acupuncture should help the patient lose 8 to 10 pounds.'
SHALI RASSOULI , traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, Cosmetic Acupuncture Clinic of Toronto
"In Chinese medicine, dissections couldn't be performed because of ancestor worship. Their medicine was developed by looking at live people, whereas Western knowledge comes from looking at cells and dead people. Western medicine would describe how acupuncture works as an immune response. You put the needle in and your body responds to it by sending blood and becoming more aware of the area. But, say, you have a stomach ache and I put a needle in your leg. How does that work? [Traditional Chinese medicine recognizes that] meridian lines run along the surface of the body and connect to the organs. A headache could have many causes: a low blood pressure one is different from one caused by high blood pressure. Acupuncture, herbs, nutrition and counselling are mainstays. You can't treat someone with insomnia just using the insomnia needles. If eating late were a factor, maybe I would use the digestive needles instead."
KALEB MONTGOMERY , traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, Toronto
"Knowing who to go to is a very big problem in Ontario because there is no regulation. There are four grades of acupuncture practitioners. The first is doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, with a degree from a TCM college and knowledge of all aspects of Chinese medicine, including herbs. The second, a doctor of acupuncture, knows more about acupuncture than herbs. The third, an acupuncturist, holds a diploma in acupuncture. The fourth, an adjunct acupuncturist, is someone like an MD or chiropractor who has some training in acupuncture but can only practise within limits. If you have a serious condition like multiple sclerosis, you should see a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine."
CEDRIC CHEUNG, national president, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada
"I wouldnt recommend it as a primary treatment. The evidence of efficacy is there, but we need data and the data isnt there yet. To dismiss it would be an error, because this is a remedy that has been around for thousands of years, and that says something. We need to enhance our knowledge and should be treating this with the same sort of vigour as we would a pharmaceutical study."
MARTIN A. KATZMAN , MD, director, Stress Trauma Anxiety Rehabilitation Treatment Clinic, assistant professor, department of psychiatry, U of T