By Bobby Miller
In the world of medicine, the most exciting treatments tend to be the groundbreaking ones, ones that people of the past could have never imagined. It is extraordinary, then, that after all these years, an ancient form of medical treatment known as acupuncture still attracts the attention of many people. According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey, roughly 8.2 million people in the United States have tried acupuncture.
Recent developments show that acupuncture can help slow the onset of Alzheimer’s, and veterinarians use acupuncture to treat several disorders. But first, what is acupuncture and does the medical community regard it as a viable treatment?
What is Acupuncture?
Dr. Erik Bliss, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, has defined acupuncture as “a 5,000 year old Chinese system of natural healing, which is concerned with restoring proper energy flow to the various organs, glands and tissues of the body.” To go about this, the doctor determines the skin points related to the condition, and then needles are carefully inserted at these points to stimulate the nervous system at those points.
Aside from long needle insertion, other forms of acupuncture include short needle penetration, non-piercing needles, fingertip pressure, and more. Although we usually think of long needle insertion when we think of acupuncture, Bliss said that “the non-piercing needle, called teishin, is very popular because the technique is practically painless and results are equal to, if not better than other techniques.”
Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester in New York, explains the therapeutic effects of acupuncture by noting that, when a needle is inserted into a certain area or pressure is applied there, the body releases a chemical called adenosine. It acts as a local anesthetic that slows pain messages to the brain. To find which area of the body requires treatment, the doctor can check the patient’s pulse in different spots or consult the Acupuncture Comprehensive Prescription Index. According to Bliss, the book lists over 2,500 illnesses, along with points of the body that have been used in the past to treat each one.
No matter which condition acupuncture is used to treat, it has the advantage of being a natural process. “There are really no side effects,” Bliss said. “It’s a first-line defense. I always say chiropractic acupuncture first, drugs second, surgery last. It’s very-little-to-non-invasive and can make such a huge difference in a typically short period of time.”
Is Acupuncture Science or Superstition?
However, not everyone is so confident in acupuncture. Especially in the West, the traditional Chinese practice has been—and still is—a source of controversy in the medical community. Critics of acupuncture note that it was developed long before the scientific method existed. According to them, the positive effects of acupuncture can be ascribed to the placebo effect, that is, the patient’s belief that the procedure will work. To make this case, researchers note that “sham acupuncture,” a fake form of treatment given to control groups to make them think they’re receiving actual treatment, often works as well as real acupuncture.
Dr. Andrew Vickers, research methodologist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said that acupuncture’s benefits are almost entirely attributable to the placebo effect. Yet, he believes that the placebo effect is so strong that the procedure usually works anyway, making it “a good treatment option.”
Defenders of acupuncture, however, believe that so-called “sham acupuncture” isn’t all that different from real acupuncture. Specifically, it still involves putting needles into the skin—albeit at false points—stroking the skin or applying great pressure to certain points. As Dr. Philip Nino Tan-Gatue states on his blog Qi-Spot.com, “neuro pathways are activated” in sham acupuncture “and thus, there is still a net physiologic effect.”
In his view, “as long as a physiologic effect is seen, then by definition it cannot be a placebo. Common sense shows that merely touching the skin creates physiologic responses.” With the body being stimulated, the patient is bound to receive beneficial effects. Plus, such a wide variety of points can be used to treat a condition that it’s difficult to find an entirely unrelated region of the body to use for sham acupuncture.
Overall, the emerging clinical evidence implies that acupuncture is effective for some, but not all conditions. This is the stance held by E. Ernst and other researchers in The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, an international journal of comparative medicine between the East and West. The World Health Organization or WHO has approved acupuncture as a viable form of treatment for many different kinds of conditions, including headaches, depression, lower back pain, nausea, and hypertension. The full listing can be found at the WHO’s official website, WHO.int. In light of the evidence, some health insurance companies are willing to cover acupuncture costs, according to ABC News. They are especially likely to cover the procedure if it is being used to treat physical pain.
In Bliss’ experience, four out of five patients respond favorably to acupuncture treatment. He believes in its power because, when he was younger, he tried all sorts of different methods to relieve his headaches, but they weren’t alleviated until he tried acupuncture. Since then, he’s seen the procedure benefit many of his patients. In his own words, when acupuncture “has been working for 5,000 years, there must be something to it.”
Recent Developments in Research
Despite the fact that acupuncture has been around for so long, there is still innovative research being conducted to find out more about the treatment’s possibilities.
For instance, Drs. Huisheng Xie and Lindsey Wedemeyer have explored how veterinarians can use acupuncture in order to help animals. They note that “acupuncture is currently taught at seven [American Veterinary Medical Association]-accredited veterinary schools, with others planning to add it to their curriculum and many more employing clinical staff with certification or interest in acupuncture.” They go on to note various studies that have supported “the use of acupuncture as a safe and effective treatment for many disorders in animals.”
For example, the procedure has been used on horses to keep them running fast. Acupuncture treats the pain associated with a horse’s musculoskeletal disorders to maintain its performance. Research has also shown that acupuncture can effectively treat wounds, neurological disorders (such as epilepsy), visual disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, and more. It has been tested on species including monkeys, dogs, cows, and rats. For them, it has been shown to be safe and cost-effective. In one case, as published in the American Journal of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Neal J. Sivula was able to reduce the size of a painful tumor growing on a dog’s face.
Of course, humans are benefiting from new developments in acupuncture research as well. Dr. Zhiqun Wang and his team of researchers found that acupuncture can be used to treat one of the most daunting illnesses of our time—Alzheimer’s. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI to examine how the brain operates during traditional acupuncture. They found that it effectively stimulates areas of the brain related to memory and cognition, making it one means by which doctors can slow the onset of Alzheimer’s. Their findings were published in the August 2012 issue of the PLOS ONE scientific journal.
Other recent studies have emphasized how acupuncture can be an effective and natural alternative to medicine when treating certain conditions. Dr. Albrecht Molsberger, publishing his work in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, has noted that acupuncture may be more effective than medicine in treating migraines. According to him, “patients and physicians are constantly looking for alternatives to drug therapy, which is effective in the short term but may have severe unwanted effects in the long term.” One German study showed that acupuncture treatments given over a six-week period were at least as effective as daily prophylactic medication taken over a six-month period. So, acupuncture proved to be a faster form of treatment without producing any unwanted side effects.
Overall, studies suggest that the ancient Chinese were really on to something when they developed acupuncture. It has stood the test of time over 5,000 years, though some scientists continue to question its validity. It can treat a wide variety of conditions in humans and animals, acting as a safe alternative to drugs and surgery when administered professionally.
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