Acupuncture: Getting to the point of treatments

Dr. Ellen Price
Dr. Ellen Price

Acupuncture has been around more than 3,000 years. Chinese healers discovered that inserting needles into lines of force in the body called meridians could help the flow of qi in the body. Qi is considered a life force or vital energy, and keeping it flowing is essential to good health. In traditional Chinese medicine, there is no life without qi.

Modern western science has begun to understand the value of this type of energy medicine. In fact, the National Institutes of Health has committed $9 million a year in research grants to study the effectiveness of this treatment. Excellent studies on acupuncture have been published in peer reviewed journals. The therapy has gained worldwide acceptance for its value in treating difficult problems that aren’t easily cured with surgery or medicine.

As baby boomers age and degenerative diseases progress, medical costs and disability will likely increase. For patients who want to continue enjoying their active lifestyles, good, safe pain management is critical. Cost-effective acupuncture treatments can provide good results in as little as six sessions. When properly administered under sterile conditions, acupuncture is safe and relatively painless.

How does acupuncture work? There are many possible explanations. Recent positron emission tomography  (PET)scan research has shown there’s a change in blood flow in parts of the brain that activate endorphins, the body’s own painkiller. Chronic pain could be caused by semi-permanent synaptic changes that stabilize the neuromatrix. Scientists speculate that a noxious stimuli, like being poked by a needle, could represent a conflicting message in the pain neuromatrix, modifying the perception of pain. Other studies have shown pain relief from acupuncture can be reversed with naloxone, an opioid blocker.

Some studies have concluded “sham” acupuncture — placing needles at random — works just as well as legitimate acupuncture. In one study, 300 patients who suffered from migraine headaches were divided into three groups. In one group, acupuncture needles were placed at prescribed sites. In the second group, patients were needled, but randomly. Patients in the third group received no treatment whatsoever. All the needled patients underwent 12 treatment sessions lasting 30 minutes.  The researchers found that both the legit and sham recipients reported 50 percent fewer headache days, while only 15 percent of those in the control group felt better. Why was this? Many people might equate placebo effects with scams.  Researchers typically account for a baseline of 30 percent placebo responders, but this result was substantially higher.

Most acupuncturists use 300 points, but it’s possible precise locations are less important than they might believe. Could it be related to the noxious stimuli theory? No one knows. Studies are also complicated by the fact it’s nearly impossible to perform sham acupuncture without actually piercing the skin. It’s also hard to account for the patient-provider relationship and expectations for relief. The jury is still out, but, patients experienced some relief.

Chronic low back pain ranks among the most common musculoskeletal problem today. It is one of the most common causes of work time loss. A study published in 2007 in the Archives of Internal Medicine looked at the analgesic effects of acupuncture versus traditional medicinal approaches for low back pain. It was the largest and most rigorous trial ever undertaken. The study looked at 1,802 patients and concluded acupuncture constituted a strong treatment alternative to multimodal conventional therapy, giving physicians a promising and effective treatment option for chronic low back pain.

Acupuncture offers relief so people can function. That’s why Colorado Division of Worker’s Compensation guidelines allow for 12 sessions of acupuncture therapy.

Acupuncture also has been shown to be effective in treating the chronic insomnia that affects about 3 million Americans — 10 percent to 15 percent of the adult population. An analysis published in 2009 looked at 46 studies and found acupuncture was superior to common prescription medications, but the combination of acupuncture and traditional treatment is best. Acupuncture improves quality of sleep and helps avoid complications induced by sleep medications.

Obviously, more research is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions. In the meantime, if you’re responding to acupuncture therapy, you should probably continue with it. There’s little downside, and feeling better is what counts.