More than 25 percent of American adults have recently experienced pain lasting more than a day, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes for Health. That's a whole lot of ouch — and what if you're tired of reaching for the ibuprofen?
A growing number of Americans in search of pain management are turning to the alternative medicine of acupuncture, in which a practitioner uses hair-thin needles to stimulate specific points on the body. Acupuncture has been practiced in China for centuries. The theory is that acupuncture helps to regulate the flow of energy (or "qi," pronounced "chee") throughout pathways of the body called meridians. A national survey conducted in 2007 found that an estimated 3.1 million Americans had tried acupuncture in the year prior. When done correctly, acupuncture is almost painless.
Acupuncture first starting gaining prevalence in the United States in the early 1970s thanks to a report in The New York Times. A reporter wrote about his experiences with the practice following a surgery in China. Today, people turn to this alternative therapy seeking relief for everything from headaches and menstrual cramps to osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.
What scientists say about acupuncture
Studies on the benefits of acupuncture are mixed. According to the NCCAM, it's challenging for researchers to compare study results because the body of existing research is so varied. Some studies have used electric acupuncture techniques instead of manual. Others have lacked proper controls. Some show that a placebo, or simulated acupuncture, is just as effective as actual acupuncture. And, unfortunately, there are many "sham" acupuncture practitioners.
The Harvard Health Blog recently reported on a research review published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The review of 29 studies found acupuncture to relieve pain by about 50 percent. According to WebMD, studies have shown acupuncture to be effective at treating nausea during pregnancy and chemotherapy or post-surgery. However, as far as pain goes, the results are mixed:
- Migraines and headaches might be relieved by acupuncture, but one study found no difference in the outcomes of actual and simulated acupuncture.
- Similarly, lower back pain has been found to respond as well to simulated acupuncture as it does to the actual practice.
- Menstrual cramps are relieved by acupuncture, according to two studies.
- Osteoarthritis of the knee seems to respond well to acupuncture.
Acupuncture is also used in rehabilitation facilities to help prevent drug relapse and reduce withdrawal symptoms.
What can you take away?
The bottom line is: Scientists aren't sure if acupuncture is an effective treatment for pain. The research simply isn't conclusive yet.
But if you are in chronic pain, it might be worth a try. After all, what can it hurt? Just be sure to find a certified practitioner — and to tell all of your health care providers any time you decide to experiment with alternative and complementary medicine.
This article is presented by Perkins Motors in Colorado Springs, Colorado