Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), refers to those practices that are not typically the first approach to treatment offered by Western medicine. Spend any time in a major medical center these days and you’ll see a number of different CAM approaches being offered-from massage therapy, touch therapy to acupuncture. In fact, many doctors, dentists and other medical providers are being cross trained in various aspects of CAM. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and well respected institutions, like the Mayo Clinic, include CAM treatments as part of their information on Diseases and Conditions.
In continuing the series on CAM practices, this post focuses on acupuncture. A meta analysis (a study looking at lots of different research), released this week, has found that acupuncture does relieve pain. The 29 studies reviewed included almost 18,000 patients. The researchers concluded that acupuncture works better than usual pain treatment and slightly better than fake acupuncture. The results "provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option," wrote the authors, who include researchers with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and several universities in England and Germany. Archives of Internal Medicine 9/10/12.
According to NCCAM, which funded the study, The term “acupuncture” describes a family of procedures 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.
Practiced in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years, acupuncture is one of the key components of traditional Chinese medicine. In TCM, the body is seen as a delicate balance of two opposing and inseparable forces: yin and yang. Yin represents the cold, slow, or passive principle, while yang represents the hot, excited, or active principle. According to TCM, health is achieved by maintaining the body in a “balanced state”; disease is due to an internal imbalance of yin and yang. This imbalance leads to blockage in the flow of qi (vital energy) along pathways known as meridians. Qi can be unblocked, according to TCM, by using acupuncture at certain points on the body that connect with these meridians. Sources vary on the number of meridians, with numbers ranging from 14 to 20. One commonly cited source describes meridians as 14 main channels “connecting the body in a weblike interconnecting matrix” of at least 2,000 acupuncture points. NIHCAM
How exactly and why acupuncture works is unclear to western science, so that alone will cause some providers to dismiss it out of hand. Others, who have seen the impact on patients not only refer to acupuncturists, but some have been crossed trained in the discipline.
Acupuncture is often used to treat various types of pain, including headache, migraine, joint, dental, post operative and chronic. It’s also being used for a variety of other conditions including: post operative nausea and vomiting; allergies; fatigue; depression; anxiety; menopausal symptoms; digestive disorders, including irritable bowel; infertility; insomnia and to ease the side effects of chemotherapy.
In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves inserting long, very thin needles just beneath the skin's surface at specific points on the body to control pain or stress. Several weekly sessions are usually involved, typically costing about $60 to $100 per session.
Things to consider about acupuncture
• While some insurance companies cover acupuncture treatment, others, including Medicare, do not.
• There are relatively few complications from the use of acupuncture. However, it can cause potentially serious side effects so find a qualified practitioner. The FDA does regulate acupuncture needles and requires that be sterile, nontoxic and labeled for single use. Practitioners should use a new set of disposable needles taken from a sealed package for each patient and should swab treatment sites with alcohol or another disinfectant before inserting needles. When not delivered properly, acupuncture can cause serious adverse effects, including infections and punctured organs.
• To find a qualified acupuncturist, consider the following:
- Many doctors, dentists and other professionals are trained in acupuncture.
- Ask your provider for a referral. Many medical providers have acupuncturists that they work with.
- Most states require a license to practice and have specific laws pertaining to the practice of acupuncture. Check to make sure your acupuncturist has such a license and operates within your state’s laws. Check the national and state list of Acupuncture Organizations from Acupuncture Today
- Ask family and friends who have recently had acupuncture about providers they liked.
- Many whole food stores, yoga centers and even business directories will provide lists of acupuncturists in your area. Be sure to check qualifications.
- Find out about pricing and payment before you begin treatment.