Chronic pain, migraine headaches, obesity, anxiety, depression, and addictions are very difficult to treat. Currently offered drugs, surgeries, counseling, and physical therapies rarely provide a complete relief for these conditions. This has led many suffers and medical providers to explore other therapies. The use of acupuncture in the United States is expanding rapidly, especially in pain clinics and substance abuse and mental health treatment facilities.
Acupuncture encompasses a family of therapies involving the stimulation of points on the body using a variety of techniques. The acupuncture technique that has been most often studied scientifically involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation. Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years and is one of the key treatments used in traditional Chinese medicine.
We do not know exactly how acupuncture works. This is partially because acupuncture and other treatments outside of traditional Western medicine have not been studied in the same way as drugs and surgeries. Fortunately, there are a growing number of studies available now to guide patients and medical providers when considering acupuncture as an option. These studies offer some insight into the way acupuncture works. Multiple research studies have shown that acupuncture activates the body’s natural painkillers, producing an effect like narcotic pain medications. Acupuncture may also stimulate nerves that override pain signals. Regardless of how it works, studies of brain function and structure suggest that acupuncture has positive specific, measurable effects on the brain’s response to pain.
A review of the scientific literature shows that acupuncture offers a good chance of helping people with some of the most common chronic medical problems. For example:
Acupuncture significantly lowers blood pressure in patients taking antihypertensive medications. Acupuncture for migraine headache is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects. Acupuncture can also be a valuable non-drug treatment for patients with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches. Acupoint stimulation appears to be effective in treating fibromyalgia compared with medications. Acupuncture has been shown to offer good short-term relief for back pain.
Acupuncture is generally very safe. Skin infections can occur if the needles used are not sterile, so it is best to receive acupuncture from a certified acupuncturist and ask how the needles are sterilized. You can check with the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure to see if your acupuncturist is certified. Some, but certainly not all health insurance plans cover acupuncture therapy.
It is clear that a person’s perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes toward acupuncture greatly influence whether or not it will help. It is also clear that attention to proper diet, physical activity, and lowering of stress help any medical therapy work better. While some people dismiss acupuncture as having a placebo effect, dedicated researchers are intensely trying to understand how medicine can leverage the marvelous ability of our minds to control pain, accelerate healing, and relieve suffering. After all, aren’t those the real goals in treating any form of illness?
In summary, acupuncture is a reasonable treatment option for many people suffering with common chronic health problems. It is much less expensive and risky than surgery and spinal injections, and has fewer side effects than addictive or sedating pain medications. Integrative medicine is a growing subspecialty that incorporates acupuncture and other therapies formally called “complementary” or “alternative” in a person’s overall treatment plan. You can find a board certified integrative medicine provider by searching the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine website.
Deborah Ann Ballard, MD, MPH, is an internal medicine specialist with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care/Healthy Lifestyle Centers and is certified by the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine.