Some of my patients, in addition to seeing me regularly, seek out acupuncture treatments. What is this ancient practice, and what does Western medicine have to say about its effectiveness?
An acupuncturist penetrates the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles. Traditional Chinese medicine identifies more than 2,000 acupuncture points, connected by pathways (meridians). These pathways channel an energy known as Qi. It is believed that disruption of this energy flow is responsible for disease, and that the application of the needles improves the energy flow.
Since acupuncture uses extremely thin needles, the discomfort is minimal. Some find that the treatments make them feel energized; others, relaxed. The needles might be heated, or a mild electrical current may be applied to them. The FDA regulates acupuncture needles, just as it does other medical devices.
What has Western medicine found? Many Western practitioners believe that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system, which in turn releases chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These biochemical changes may stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well-being. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has performed solid scientific studies demonstrating that acupuncture is effective, alone or in combination with conventional therapies, for conditions which include:
nausea from surgical anesthesia and cancer chemotherapy
dental pain following surgery
low back pain
headaches, including tension and migraine
carpal tunnel syndrome
asthma, allergies and other respiratory conditions
Increasingly, acupuncture is also being used for overall wellness, including stress management, although its effectiveness in those areas is more difficult to quantify through scientific studies.
The risks from receiving acupuncture are minimal, assuming that the practitioner is competent and certified. Common side effects include soreness and minor bleeding or bruising where the needles were inserted. Single-use, disposable needles are now the practice standard, which nearly eliminates the risk of infection. People who should avoid acupuncture include those with a bleeding disorder, a pacemaker (due to the electrical pulses sometimes used), and pregnant women (as some acupuncture points might actually stimulate labor).
An acupuncture session may last up to 60 minutes, although some may be shorter, depending on the problem being treated. The number of sessions also depends on the condition, although six to eight treatments are common. Note that acupuncture points are located all over the body, and that the appropriate points may be far removed from the actual area of the discomfort. A treatment may use 5 to 20 needles, which may be moved, twirled, conduct heat, or receive a mild electrical pulse.
My bottom line? Acupuncture is a very safe treatment when used by a qualified practitioner. Complications are exceedingly rare. Extensive studies show real efficacy for a variety of conditions. Note that researchers are only beginning to understand whether acupuncture can be helpful for other conditions as well. As always, discuss any treatment method with your physician, and I urge you to not use acupuncture in lieu of seeing your regular health care provider.