Acupuncture goes mainstream

It can quell nausea, fight off headaches, and help you quit smoking. What’s more, it’s relatively inexpensive, painless, andvirtually free of side effects. If you didn’t know better, you might dismiss these claims as nothing more than hype heralding another quack remedy. In reality, these are the conclusions of a panel of prominent scientists convened by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate acupuncture.

The benefits of acupuncture come as no surprise to the one million people in the United States who visit acupuncturists each year. And the virtues of the therapy are certainly not news to the Chinese, who have regarded acupuncture as the cornerstone of their traditional medical practice for close to 3000 years. What is remarkable about the NIH report is that it opens the door for acupuncture’s acceptance into the world of mainstream Western medicine.

How does it work?

In the scheme of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture’s underlying philosophy is based on the premise that energy flows in organized patterns throughout the body. When this energy, known as qi (pronounced “chee”), becomes blocked or disrupted, disease results. The acupuncturist can bring the qi back into balance and restore the patient to health simply by inserting thin needles at identified points on the energy pathways.

The role and functioning of qi is difficult to explain using the logic of Western medicine. Researchers, however, have come up with their own explanation of acupuncture’s beneficial effects. The current opinion is that the insertion of acupuncture needles prompts the body to release powerful brain chemicals known as endorphins. These substances have the ability to alter a person’s sense of pain and may also trigger the release of hormones and other chemicals that govern the workings of internal systems.

What conditions can acupuncture treat?

The NIH panel agreed that acupuncture might be beneficial for approximately 13 different conditions. These include conditions that range from adult post-operative and chemotherapy nausea to tennis elbow and asthma.

However, Terry Courtney, interim chairperson of the acupuncture and Oriental medicine department at Bastyr University in Bothell, Washington, warns not to be misled by this seemingly limited list. “Most people don’t realize that acupuncture and Oriental medicine is a very complete and total form of medicine, and as such it has been used for every illness and syndrome you can think of.” She goes on to explain, “The panel could only make their determination based on the scientific data to date. So there are a number of syndromes that have not been studied but for which you can see clinical effectiveness.” In her own practice, Courtney treats people for a wide variety of problems. “Some of the most common have to do with respiratory problems like asthma and allergies, digestive problems, difficult menstrual periods and PMS, and certainly both acute and chronic pain issues,” she says.

The acupuncture experience

Unlike Western medicine, traditional Chinese medicine does not view an illness as a problem in itself. Instead, each condition is considered a manifestation of various imbalances within the body. An acupuncturist may treat a condition such as asthma in a variety of ways, depending on the profile of the individual patient. A standard course of treatment, however, is anywhere from six to ten visits. Depending upon the practitioner’s particular style and training, these visits would be scheduled either once or twice a week. Courtney adds, “Generally people who have chronic health problems are going to take a bit longer than people who are suffering from an acute episode of something.”

One of Courtney’s patients, 27 year-old Charlotte Koehler, has sought acupuncture many times over the years for problems ranging from depression to acne and anemia. Severe menstrual cramps brought her in for her most recent session. Says Koehler of the experience, “They leave the needles in for about 30 or 45 minutes and you feel relief. You feel energy circulating throughout your body and it takes the pain away in the areas you were feeling it.” Terry Courtney agrees that prompt symptom relief is not uncommon. “I’ve seen some people get off the table and all their allergy symptoms are really calmed down. Their nose is not running, they’ve stopped sneezing, their throat’s not itching, they’re really fine.”

Although one of the strongest indicators of a treatment’s success is how the patient is feeling, the acupuncturist also measures progress at each visit using a number of diagnostic techniques such as taking the patient’s pulse and examining the tongue. “Acupuncture and herbal medicine have a cumulative effect on the body. Each treatment creates more stability and balance,” explains Courtney. “Once you stop treatment, the patient experiences stability at that level. It’s only through major season change, stress, lifestyle change or diet that some of that progress erodes.”

For that reason, a patient may choose to schedule follow-up visits every few months to maintain the level of health they achieved during treatment.

East meets west

The next millennium holds the promise of new-found collaboration opportunities between Western medicine and acupuncture. Terry Courtney sees the treatment of immune and autoimmune disorders as a logical starting point for this type of East-West medical partnership. “That’s an area where collaboration is the strongest because each medicine—Chinese and Western—recognizes their strengths and weaknesses,” she explains. In particular, she feels that the medical community has begun to appreciate the role the acupuncturist can play in the treatment of HIV and AIDS. “For example, you may not be able to prescribe an effective medicine for HIV night sweats, but there’s a lot you can do with acupuncture. So when the physician begins to see the night sweats are clearing up, a nice collaboration starts to take place.”

Another bright spot for acupuncture following the NIH report is that more insurance carriers are adding it to their list of covered benefits. To meet this growing demand, the ranks of licensed acupuncturists in the United States is expected to double to 20,000 by the end of the decade. Concludes Courtney, “We’re going through a really fascinating time right now because you can find acupuncture in public hospitals, in sports medicine clinics, and in rehab hospitals. The collaboration is beginning to happen at the clinical level and that makes it easiest for everybody, both practitioners and patients.”

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