The practice of acupuncture is certainly time tested, it's been used to treat everything from asthma to kidney disease for at least 2,500 years. While slow to catch up, scientific research in the West is beginning to show that it does work for many common medical issues. We've all heard about the dangers of prescription opioid abuse, and even over-the-counter analgesics such as acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, and NSAIDS like Advil and Aleve pose health risks, especially with chronic use. In an interview with the Harvard Medical School Health Blog, Dr. Lucy Chen, a board-certified anesthesiologist, pain specialist, and acupuncturist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said, "I think the benefit of acupuncture is clear, and the complications and potential adverse effects of acupuncture are low compared with medication."
What is acupuncture?
According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture balances the vital energy called "qi" that flows through "meridians," or pathways, in the body. When qi gets blocked, it can lead to pain and disease. The insertion of hair thin needles into strategic points along these meridians is thought to release the flow of qi. Western medicine postulates that the practice stimulates neurotransmitters, hormone levels, and the immune system.
Some insurance companies do cover acupuncture, especially when administered by a licensed physician, but you are more likely going to be paying for it out of pocket. The average cost is 60-120 dollars per session and it can take a number of sessions to see results. To get the biggest bang for your buck, it makes sense to try acupuncture for the issues where there has been the most research.
Lower back pain
Lower back pain is the largest cause of disability worldwide and in any given year 50 percent of the American workforce will experience some symptoms. A 2013 systematic review of studies concluded that acupuncture may be more effective than medication for treating back pain. Other research shows that combining acupuncture with traditional protocols reduces symptoms more effectively than conventional treatment alone. Acupuncture may help treat other types of common pain as well. In 2012, the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that "Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo."
Migraine and tension headaches
Migraines are another debilitating condition that are notoriously hard to treat. According to the American Migraine Foundation, in a study involving nearly 5000 participants, acupuncture cut the frequency of migraines in half for 59 percent of sufferers. They recommended at least six sessions to experience a benefit. The Center for Complementary Medicine Research at Munich Technical University found similar results for those suffering from tension headaches.
The Mayo Clinic uses acupuncture in their multi-pronged approach to treating Fibromyalgia. While more research needs to be done, 2016 study found that a ten-week course of acupuncture helped reduce pain and other symptoms for more than 40 percent of participants. A year later, many still reported the treatment was helping.
Nausea and fatigue related to cancer treatment
The UCLA Center for East-West Medicine has used acupuncture in an integrative approach to supporting patients undergoing cancer treatment for over twenty years. In in interview with WebMD, founder of the clinic Ka-Kit Hui, MD, explained that acupuncture helps the body heal itself. According to the National Institutes of Health, clinical trials have also shown acupuncture to be effective in reducing nausea associated with motion sickness and pregnancy (although the Mayo Clinic warns that certain types of acupuncture can trigger labor so pregnant women should definitely discuss the pros and cons with their OB/GYN).
A growing number of fertility specialists recommend a few months of acupuncture before starting IVF. The American Pregnancy Association points out that while acupuncture can be effective in treating many conditions related to difficulty conceiving, it won't work for some issues such as blocked fallopian tubes caused by endometriosis. It's important to see a practitioner who has specific training in infertility.
Acupuncture also shows promise treating osteoarthritis, insomnia, dental pain, mild depression, gastric issues, and easing menstrual cramps and hot flashes. However, it's not without risks. Unsterilized needles can cause infection. There have been rare cases of a needle pushed too deep puncturing an organ. On the milder side, soreness, light bleeding, and bruising may occur after treatment. People with pacemakers should not be treated with acupuncture and those taking blood thinners need to get the okay from their doctor. To minimize risks, always choose a licensed practitioner. Visit the website of The National Certification Commision for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for more information.