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Acupuncture is widely accepted for its benefits, primarily in the management of musculoskeletal, inflammatory, and neuropathic pain. It’s also a viable option for treating other conditions, such as urinary incontinence, addictions, mood and neurologic disorders. The scientific basis of acupuncture is sound. Research performed on animals show that acupuncture, through a series of reactions, releases adrenocorticotropic hormones and beta-endorphin. The result if pain inhibition. More recently, MRI and PET scans have confirmed the effect of acupuncture on the brain. (1, 2) Professor Bruce Pomeranz at the University of Toronto began research in the 1970’s, leading to its acceptance in Western medicine.
Acupuncture is safe. The needles are designed so as not to produce trauma. A look at twelve studies showed that the risk of adverse events from acupuncture is 0.05 per 10,000 treatments, and 0.55 per 10,000 individual patients. Reusable needles have caused infection, and there are some reports of pneumothorax (lung collapse) from needle use.
There is no absolute contraindication to acupuncture. Traditionally, certain points are avoided during pregnancy, and it’s not performed during the first three months. Very frail persons may be at risk, and anyone with high fever should avoid treatments. Electrical stimulation is often used with acupuncture, making it unsfafe for patients with pacemakers.
Chronic back and neck pain sufferers, and patients with osteoarthritis respond well to acupuncture treatments, usually within the first few sessions. Knee pain and swelling was improved in one study performed 570 patients with knee osteoarthritis. (3) Other successes include cancer pain management, and nerve pain following shingles as well as spinal cord injury. Unfortunately, diabetics have not received much pain relief associated with neuropathy from acupuncture, according to practitioners, though there are no studies.
A high-technology form of TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) called Codetron, invented in Canada, has been used to treat cancer patients since 1985. The mechanisms of pain relief are the same as acupuncture.
Awareness of acupuncture as a proven therapy can provide pain relief for many people who have tried other options. Self-treatment with TENS units can improve quality of life for chronic pain sufferers. You can purchase a unit with a prescription from your doctor. Many insurance companies reimburse, or partially pay for alternative treatment such as acupuncture. The take home message is that we can be assured that the benefits of acupuncture are real. It's an option worth exploring.
(1)Han JS, Terenius L. Neurochemical basis of acupuncture analgesia. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol 1982; 22:193-220.
(2)Han JS. Acupuncture and endorphins. Neurosci Lett 2004; 361:258-61.
(3)Berman BM, Lao L, Langenberg P, et al. Effectiveness of acupuncture as adjunctive therapy in osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized, controlled trial. Ann Intern Med 2004;141:901-10.