Acupuncture is perhaps one of the most well-known alternative medicine treatments available in the United States today. It is considered legitimate enough to be able to be deducted as a medical expense on an IRS tax form and yet is still considered a pseduomedicine by many doctors. In fact, based on a 2005 survey, only about 59% of American doctors believed acupuncture was at least somewhat effective for treatment of pain. This form of alternative medicine relies on the simple application of sharp invasive needles to certain vital acupuncture points in the human body with the goal of relieving pain and helping soothe the nerves. Although many acupuncture practices claim that their methods can also help eliminate disease, this has never been successfully proved in any clinical trials.
Acupuncture dates back to as far as the 2nd century BCE and has its most probable roots in China, although there are several different Japanese and Korean variations. Original acupuncture points were believed to have been the result of meticulous Chinese astrological calculations. The Chinese believed that these were the points in the human body that when stimulated by needles would allow for a mystical energy called Qi to flow more easily through the body and thereby alleviate pain and other medical conditions. Although modern day specialists in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, who are called L.Ac.’s (short for licensed acupuncturist), may be knowledgeable about these Chinese teachings, they often position needles according to the needs of their individual patient. The popularity of acupuncture has largely spread by word of mouth and patients referring many of their friends and family to their own acupuncturists or by extolling the difference they’ve felt after such treatments. Is there any modern scientific basis to the location and anatomical structure of these acupuncture points? The National Institues of Health (NIH) published a written consensus in 1997 that stated that “despite considerable efforts to understand the anatomy and physiology of “acupuncture points” . . . the definition and characterization of these points remains controversial.”
Is the effect of acupuncture treatment significant when compared to a placebo treatment? In 2001, a study conducted by Carlsson and Sjolund at a Swedish university hospital and published in the journal The Clinical Journal of Pain attempted to figure out if a series of needle acupuncture treatments produced any long-term pain relief. It was a randomized placebo controlled study that found that there was some pain-relieving effect associated with needle compared with a placebo for patients with chronic lower back pain. Randomized clinical trials and double-blind experiments with acupuncture are difficult to perform because it is difficult to replicate the treatment of acupuncture needles as a placebo. A study in the 1998 issue of The Lancet which utilized a placebo that attempts to mimic the penetration of acupuncture needles without actually penetrating the skin found that “acupuncture treatments undoubtedly involve placebo effects.” The study, conducted by Streitberger and Kleinhenz at the University of Heidelberg, concluded that the most significant effect of using acupuncture needles involves the feeling that accompanies penetration of the skin, whether or not it is real or perceived.
Despite the shaky scientific evidence, acupuncture is a growing field in the United States. For those who are willing to pay anywhere from $20 to $80 per visit, an acupuncture session usually consists of a tongue examination followed by the determination of the pulse in both arms. Other varying preliminary check-ups ensue all of which help the acupuncturist determine where exactly the needles should be placed. Many acupuncturists such as Lisa Ripi, a traveling acupuncturist who works for NFL players, state that they target the areas where they believe there is a vast quantity of “stuck blood” that hasn’t been flowing properly.
Since acupuncture is an invasive procedure, there is some risk involved. However, the use of sterile needles by licensed practitioners usually results in very few actual injuries or complications. The exact mechanism by which the needles trigger pain relief is not known but Dr. Sherwin Nuland, a professor of clinical surgery at Yale, has offered the explanation that “somehow the needles stimulate the brain to increase its production of analgesic endorphins.” Indeed the NIH has reported several positive uses of acupuncture such as limiting post-chemotherapy nausea and easing lower back pain.
Although much research remains to be done, it is clear that acupuncture does provide some level of relief for some patients; whether it is purely psychological or whether it is has a scientific mechanism of action within the body remains controversial. As more studies continue to be conducted, the practice of acupuncture is slowly gaining popularity because it does not rely on drugs or sedation. It relies on natural methods of healing and pain alleviation and it is primarily a pain reducer. For those who can afford it, acupuncture is an attractive alternative to drugs and painkillers and it is likely to remain relevant in the near future.
This article was updated on 9/4/2011.