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Health

Does acupuncture really work?
Scientists scramble to discover the mysteries behind the ancient practice
 
Published Wednesday, May 15, 2013
by Michaela L. Duckett

Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points in the body. Methods can vary, but the most well known type in the United States is the insertion of thin metal needs through the skin.

A traditional medicine practiced in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years, acupuncture has been used to treat everything from pain to bringing a general sense of wellness.

An estimated 3 million adults in the United States use acupuncture every year, but exactly how it works remains something of a mystery, leaving many to question if the benefits are simply in their heads.

Acupuncture is part of a family of procedures that originated in China. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body contains a delicate balance of two opposing and inseparable forces: yin and yang. Yin represents the cold, slow or passive principle. Yang represents the hot, excited or active principle. According to this school of thought, health is achieved through balancing these two forces, and disease is the result of an imbalance that leads to a blockage in the flow of qi, to the vital energy or life force thought to regulate spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health. Acupuncture is intended to remove blockages in the flow of qi to restore and maintain health.

While researchers don’t know exactly how these theories translate to Western understanding of medicine, recent studies have found that acupuncture can be effective for certain health problems, including chronic back pain, knee pain, headaches and osteoarthritis.

“In many research studies, it’s clear that if you’re comparing acupuncture to usual care, the acupuncture group almost always does better,” said Dr. Richard L. Nahin of National Institutes of Health’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

However, he points out that even in the best-designed studies, creating a placebo for acupuncture poses a problem. A placebo is a fake or simulated treatment given to a control group in a study that gives researchers something to compare against real treatment, but when it comes to acupuncture scientists are challenged with trying to find a simulation for needling.
For example, when researchers have compared inserting needles with just pressing a toothpick onto acupuncture points, they’ve often found both treatments to be successful.
Another complication is that acupuncture treatments are about more than just needles.

“There’ll be needles, but there’ll probably be other things they do in the course of the treatment,” said Dr. Karen J. Sherman, a NIH-funded acupuncture researcher at Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, Wash. “Acupuncturists will talk to you in a particular way. They might give you dietary advice or exercise advice that stems from a non-Western theoretical construct. They’ll try to engage you in your own healing. They might give you a different model for thinking about your health.”

Treatment for pain remains the best-studied aspect of acupuncture, and it appears that our thoughts play a critical role in the way we experience pain. Many parts of the brain are connected in the processing of pain, and how much pain a person experiences often depends on context.

“If a person has an injury in battle, they might not feel it,” explained Sherman. “But if they have a similar injury just walking down the street, they might just think it was dreadful.”
While it remains a mystery as to how acupuncture works, the general consensus is it is a relatively safe with few side effects. However, Sherman suggests that anyone considering it as a treatment first consult with their physician to see if it is a viable option and then find an acupuncturist that is experienced in treating their specific condition.
She adds that if you decide to try it, be prepared to give it time.

“You can’t expect one session will tell you whether it works or not,” she said. “Be open minded and willing to at least entertain some of the notions that the acupuncturist brings up. Give it a try if you’re open to it.”

If you are considering acupuncture, here are a few tips from NIH to consider:
* Talk it over with your health care provider, especially if you are pregnant, nursing or thinking of using acupuncture to treat a child.
* Find an acupuncturist that is experienced in working with your specific condition.
* Check credentials. Most states require a license to practice acupuncture.
* Don’t use acupuncture as a replacement for conventional care.
* Don’t rely on a diagnosis of disease by an acupuncturist who does not have conventional medicine training.
* To help ensure coordinated and safe care, tell your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use.

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