What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a complementary medical practice that entails stimulating certain points on the body, most often with a needle penetrating the skin, to alleviate pain or to help treat various health conditions.
Developed millennia ago in China, numerous recent studies conducted by scientists in Europe and the United States have found that acupuncture is at least moderately effective in treating pain and nausea.
Researchers are also conducting studies to determine if acupuncture is effective at treating depression, anxiety and a variety of cancer and cancer treatment-related symptoms, according to Dr. Ting Bao, an integrative medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Most doctors outside of the practice of traditional Chinese medicine are not convinced that acupuncture can treat specific diseases, such as diabetes or liver or kidney diseases, as is prescribed by some practitioners in China, according to Bao, who focuses on the use of acupuncture as a complementary treatment for breast cancer patients.
How acupuncture is work?
Traditional Chinese medicine explains that health is the result of a harmonious balance of the complementary extremes of “yin” and “yang” of the life force known as “qi,” pronounced “chi.” Illness is said to be the consequence of an imbalance of the forces.
Qi is said to flow through meridians, or pathways, in the human body. These meridiens and energy flows are accessible through 350 acupuncture points in the body.
Inserting needles into these points with appropriate combinations is said to bring the energy flow back into proper balance.
There is no scientific proof that the meridians or acupuncture points exist, and it is hard to prove that they either do or do not, but numerous studies suggest that acupuncture works for some conditions.
Some experts have used neuroscience to explain acupuncture. Acupuncture points are seen as places where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. The stimulation increases blood flow, while at the same time triggering the activity of the body’s natural painkillers.
It is difficult to set up investigations using proper scientific controls, because of the invasive nature of acupuncture. In a clinical study, a control group would have to undergo sham treatment, or a placebo, for results to be compared with those of genuine acupuncture.
Some studies have concluded that acupuncture offers similar benefits to a patient as a placebo, but others have indicated that there are some real benefits.
Research carried out in Germany has shown that acupuncture may help relieve tension headaches and migraines.
The NCCIH note that it has been proven to helpTrusted Source in cases of:
- low back pain
- neck pain
- knee pain
- headache and migraine
They list additional disorders that may benefit from acupuncture, but which require further scientific confirmation.
In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed a number of conditions in which they say acupuncture has been proven effective.
- high and low blood pressure
- chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
- some gastric conditions, including peptic ulcer
- painful periods
- allergic rhinitis
- facial pain
- morning sickness
- rheumatoid arthritis
- tennis elbow
- dental pain
- reducing the risk of stroke
- inducing labor
Other conditions for which the WHO say that acupuncture may help but more evidence is needed include:
- post-operative convalescence
- substance, tobaccor and alcohol dependence
- spine pain
- stiff neck
- vascular dementia
- whooping cough, or pertussis
- Tourette syndrome
The WHO also suggest that it may help treat a number of infections, including some urinary tract infections and epidemic hemorrhagic fever.
They point out, however, that “only national health authorities can determine the diseases, symptoms, and conditions for which acupuncture treatment can be recommended.”
Acupuncture can be beneficial in that:
- Performed correctly, it is safe.
- There are very few side effects.
- It can be effectively combined with other treatments.
- It can control some types of pain.
- It may help patients for whom pain medications are not suitable.
The NCCIH advise people not to use acupuncture instead of seeing a conventional health care provider.
All therapies have risks as well as benefits.
The possible risks of acupuncture are:
- It is dangerous if a patient has a bleeding disorder or takes blood thinners.
- Bleeding, bruising, and soreness may occur at the insertion sites.
- Unsterilized needles may infect the patient.
- In rare cases, a needle may break and damage an internal organ.
- When inserted deeply into the chest or upper back, there is a risk of collapsed lung, but this is very rare.
The United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate acupuncture needles as medical devices. Their manufacture and labelling needs to meet certain standards. The needles must be sterile, nontoxic, and labelled for one use only, by a licensed practitioner.
As with any complementary therapy, it is advisable to use it alongside conventional treatments in cases of chronic or severe illness.
Limitations and misconceptions
Increasingly, mainstream doctors and medical institutions are accepting the practice of acupuncture, particularly for treatment of pain and nausea. A 2013 review, for example, found that acupuncture could reduce vomiting and nausea among patients receiving chemotherapy, according to Cancer Research UK.
Research is ongoing into whether acupuncture can also help with other cancer treatment-related symptoms, including hot flashes, peripheral neuropathy and lymphoedema (swelling of the arm or hand), according to Bao.
The World Health Organization maintains an extensive list of diseases and conditions (mostly pain related) possibly treatable by acupuncture. Many doctors now do not discourage their patients from receiving acupuncture when conventional medicine fails them or when convention treatment entails too many adverse side effects.
There is a growing body of research exploring whether acupuncture also can be used to treat depression, sleep disturbances and drug addiction. In general, however, acupuncture is considered complementary to conventional treatments, and it is likely most effective when implemented along with certain healthy lifestyle habits, according to Bao.
Study also uses acupuncture to aid in anxiety, gastrointestinal issues, weight loss, infertility, and chronic pain, in which she specializes. According to Study, acupuncture has been shown to work very well in conjunction with medications and other treatments to greatly increase their effects.