Other Studied Uses
- Allergic Rhinitis (Hay Fever)
- Back Pain
- Bell's Palsy
- Bladder Infections
- Breast-feeding Support
- Cardiac Arrhythmia
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Cancer Chemotherapy Support
- Cancer-related Pain
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Cigarette Addiction
- Colic in Infants
- Crohn's Disease
- Dental Procedures
- Female Infertility
- High Blood Pressure
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Menstrual Pain
- Migraine Headache
- Minor Injuries
- Narcotic Addiction
- Neck Pain
- Pain During Medical Procedures
- Parkinson's Disease
- Peripheral Neuropathy in HIV
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Pregnancy Support
- Premenstrual Syndrome
- Raynaud's Phenomenon
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Shingles (Post-herpetic Neuralgia)
- Sleep Apnea
- Smoking Cessation
- Sports Performance Enhancement
- Surgery Support
- Tension Headache
- Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Pain
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Weight Loss
Acupuncture has been part of the medical mainstream in countries such as China and Japan for centuries. It is also one of the most widely utilized forms of alternative therapy in the United States. More than 10 million acupuncture treatments are administered annually in the US alone. In addition, third-party insurance reimbursement and managed care coverage for acupuncture are increasing.
Due to its popularity, scientific investigation of acupuncture has grown dramatically in recent years, with many new studies reported every week. However, the results have been mixed at best.
What Is Acupuncture?
Simply defined, acupuncture is a treatment method aimed at eliciting a response (such as pain relief) through insertion of very fine needles in the body surface at sites called acupuncture points. A related technique called acupressure (or shiatsu) uses pressure on these points; a related therapy known as electroacupuncture applies electricity to the points.
A wide variety of treatment methods, approaches, techniques, styles, and theoretical frameworks exist within the very broad scope of the term acupuncture. Differences in forms of acupuncture are often cultural; the system of acupuncture practiced in Japan, for example, is quite different from that found in China. Many acupuncturists practice a more or less traditional style called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Others have adopted modern styles that have little or no reliance on traditional principles.
Acupuncture needles are most often inserted at specific locations on the skin called acupuncture points. These points are located on specific lines outlined by tradition, referred to as meridians or channels. According to Chinese medical theory, there are 14 major meridians that form an invisible network connecting the body surface with the internal organs. Meridians are to conduct Qi, the energy or vital force of the body. Pain or illness is said to result from imbalances or blockages in the flow of Qi through the meridians. Acupuncture is traditionally thought to remove such blockages, restore the normal circulation of Qi, and improve overall health by promoting the balance of energy in the system. However, there is no scientific evidence for the existence of the meridians or Qi itself. (Meridians are not visible under a microscope and, contrary to popular belief, they do not match major nerve pathways.)
In addition to meridians and Qi, the concept of yin and yang is central to acupuncture theory, as it is to all of traditional Chinese philosophy. The terms yin and yang do not represent forces or substances; rather, they are a way to look at the world in terms of the interaction of polar opposites. According to this viewpoint, all movement, growth, and change in the world is a manifestation of the push and pull of these forces. Although seemingly in opposition, these forces are thought to complement and support each other. For example, without rest one cannot exert energy; without becoming tired by exerting energy, it is difficult to sleep. This is just one illustration of the harmony and interaction of yin and yang.
Yang is traditionally associated with heat, power, daylight, summer, and many other active or energetic aspects of life; yin is cold, quiet, and dark. Many illnesses are characterized in terms of an excess or deficiency of either yin or yang, or of both at the same time. For example, when the body is feverish, it is too yang as a whole. There is also a yin and yang balance in each individual organ and part of the body; these can become excessive or deficient, too.
Thus, in TCM, illnesses are described as complex patterns of imbalances and blockages. Treatment is based not on medical diagnosis, but on identifying these problems in the body's energy and seeking to correct them. Does this traditional analysis contain truths about human health or is it just archaic thinking? The answer, as yet, remains unknown.
History of Acupuncture
Primitive acupuncture needles dating back to around 1000 BC have been discovered in archeological finds of the Shan dynasty in China. The theoretical framework underlying the practice of acupuncture was first set forth in the Inner Classic of Medicine or Nei Jing , first published in 206 BC during the Han dynasty.
As an active and growing tradition, the theory and practice of TCM evolved over the centuries, at times undergoing rapid changes. Acupuncture reached perhaps its golden age under the Ming dynasty in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Subsequently, it took second place to an ascending practice of herbal medicine . By the time acupuncture came back in vogue in twentieth-century China, it had undergone a major transformation sometimes called the herbalization of acupuncture. Current acupuncture methods given the name Traditional Chinese Medicine are derived to a great extent from this relatively modern revision of the theory. Present-day Japanese acupuncture, however, dates back to earlier versions of acupuncture.
Another major change occurred after the Communist Revolution in 1949. The new leadership, while wanting to carry through a process of modernization, decided to support and preserve traditional medicine. During the Cultural Revolution, the famous "barefoot doctors" were trained in both modern and traditional medicine and sent out to the rural areas to provide medical care for the masses. Today, in the largest and most modern Chinese hospitals, Western medicine and TCM, including acupuncture and herbal treatments, are practiced side by side.
Acupuncture was virtually unheard of and unavailable in the US until 1972, when President Nixon made his historic visit to China. Among the accompanying press was the well-known journalist James Reston, who was hospitalized while in China and received acupuncture anesthesia. Upon returning to the US, Reston published an article about his experience, stimulating new interest in acupuncture among the public and the medical community. Although it was later discovered that the drugs used along with acupuncture anesthesia probably played a major role, the perception of acupuncture as a powerful treatment caused it to gain respect in the US. Acupuncture schools began to open in the late 1970s and 1980s. With training available in the United States, the number of acupuncturists in this country began to grow rapidly, and today there are many thousands of certified and/or licensed acupuncturists.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Only one form of study can truly prove that a treatment is effective: the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. However, it is not easy to fit acupuncture into a study design of this type. One problem is designing a form of placebo acupuncture, and an even more challenging problem is to keep participants and practitioners in the dark regarding who is receiving real acupuncture and who is receiving fake. Without such blinding, the results of the study can be skewed by numerous factors. For a discussion of these factors, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?
In an attempt to approximate double-blind studies of acupuncture, researchers have resorted to a number of clever techniques. Perhaps the most common involves sham acupuncture. In such studies, a fake version of acupuncture is used to keep participants in the dark. However, because the acupuncturist knows that this is a fake treatment, he or she may subtly convey a lack of confidence in the outcome. Such studies are called single-blind and are not fully trustworthy. (The only exception are studies in which the patient is anesthetized prior to the acupuncture, and is therefore, presumably, incapable of receiving this sort of "top spin.")
To get around this problem and produce a truly double-blind study, some studies may employ technicians trained only to insert needles, rather than real acupuncturists. Such technicians might be given a list of real acupuncture points or phony acupuncture points, without being told which is which. However, it is not reasonable to suppose that an essentially untrained technician can give an acupuncture treatment as effective as that of a real acupuncturist. Furthermore, using a fixed set of points to treat a problem is not true to traditional acupuncture, which always individualizes treatment to the person.
Despite their limitations, most of the best studies available at present are the single-blind or partially double-blind designs described earlier. Although imperfect, they at least can give us some idea whether true acupuncture might be effective.
Some studies have compared acupuncture to other therapies, such as physical therapy or massage . Trials of this kind are good for determining relative cost effectiveness, but they cannot be taken as proof of efficacy for one simple reason: these other therapies have never been proven effective themselves.
Numerous acupuncture studies failed to use placebo treatment or had no control group at all. Such studies prove nothing and generally are not reported here.
Given all the above caveats, the following sections address the science regarding acupuncture. They begin with conditions in which acupuncture research has been mostly positive, continue with those for which the record is mixed, and conclude with those in which the tested form of acupuncture has not proved effective. Note that we also include studies of acupressure and electroacupuncture.
Numerous studies have evaluated treatment on a single acupuncture point—P6—traditionally thought to be effective for relief of various forms of nausea and vomiting. This point is located on the inside of the forearm, about 2 inches above the wrist crease. Most studies have investigated the effects of pressure on this point (acupressure) rather than needling. The most common methods involve a wristband with a pearl-sized bead in it situated over P6. The band exerts pressure on the bead while it is worn, and the user can press on the bead for extra stimulation.
Although the research record is mixed, on balance it appears that P6 stimulation offers at least modest benefits for nausea. This approach has been studied in anesthesia-induced nausea and other forms of nausea.
One particularly interesting aspect of studies of acupressure for postsurgical nausea is that here a single-blind study is probably as good as a double-blind study. If the acupressure wrist band is not put on till after anesthesia has begun, no amount of confidence or lack of it by the practitioner is likely to alter the placebo effect experienced by the unconscious patient. Thus, studies of acupressure/acupuncture for this condition have a higher potential validity than studies for any of the other conditions listed below. The fact that benefits have been seen strongly suggests that stimulation of P6 does in fact affect nausea. That there is no clear physiological reason why this should be so makes this an intriguing finding, even if the benefit is too slight to make much real difference in postoperative care.
Other Studied Uses
Gastrointestinal (GI) problems, like diarrhea and nausea, are common side effects for people with HIV who are receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). One hundred and thirty HIV patients on HAART were randomized to receive 1 of 4 treatments: acupuncture plus relaxation therapy , acupuncture plus health education, sham acupuncture plus relaxation therapy, or sham acupuncture plus health education. After 4 weeks of treatment, the people in the acupuncture plus relaxation group experienced a greater improvement in their GI symptoms compared to the other groups.
Persistent hiccups are defined as those lasting more than 48 hours and intractable hiccups last for more than one month. Acupuncture options for hiccups were evaluated in a review of 4 poor-quality trials of 305 patients. Two trials in the review were randomized. One trial of 80 patients found that acupuncture with an injection of frog extract yielded significant improvements in hiccups when compared to acupuncture with an injection of vitamin B6. Hiccup cure rates were similar at 1 month in a second trial of 60 patients when comparing sham acupuncture to real acupuncture.
What to Expect During an Acupuncture Treatment
Acupuncture therapy has its own style and atmosphere, both like and unlike an ordinary medical encounter. Your first session will begin with a thorough analysis of your condition and health history. If the acupuncturist practices according to the principles of TCM, you will be asked a number of questions about your specific complaint and your general health, including how well you sleep, digest your food, eliminate, and breathe, your energy level, and so forth. All of these factors are considered relevant. The acupuncturist may ask questions that seem to have little bearing on your condition, such as, "Do you tend to feel cold or hot most of the time?" TCM looks for overall patterns in both physical and emotional well-being, which guide the acupuncturist in developing a treatment plan that is specific not only for your symptoms, but for your overall health pattern.
Depending on your specific complaint and your individual symptom pattern, the acupuncturist may use only a few needles or as many as 20 or more. Acupuncture needle sizes are typically 32- to 36-gauge, which means they are about ¼ mm in diameter, much smaller than a hypodermic needle. Unlike hollow hypodermic needles, acupuncture needles are solid, which allows them to penetrate the skin easily and relatively painlessly. Acupuncture needles may produce a mild pricking sensation when inserted, but sometimes you will feel nothing at all as the needle is inserted. The needles are generally inserted to a depth ranging from a few millimeters to ½ inch or so. Insertion depth is deeper at the more fleshy areas of the body, such as the thighs and buttocks.
Acupuncture needles are typically inserted through a plastic tube that guides the needle into the skin. This is a fairly modern needle insertion technique. Traditional freehand insertion is also used; most acupuncturists are trained in this method. Virtually all acupuncturists in the United States now use pre-sterilized, one-time-use disposable needles, which eliminate any risk of cross-infection.
The acupuncturist may twirl the inserted needles and ask you to say when you feel a mild achy, heavy sensation; or the area may feel slightly numb or tingly. These sensations, described in TCM as the arrival of Qi, are regarded as a positive response that will enhance the effectiveness of the treatment.
Whatever you feel, the sensation should be mild, not overly unpleasant, and should subside within a few minutes. If any needles are genuinely painful, inform the practitioner so he or she can adjust the depth or remove the needle altogether. The needles are generally left in place for 20 to 30 minutes. During this time, you should feel comfortable and relaxed, and you may fall asleep.
Acupuncturists may also employ a technique known as electroacupuncture, in which electrodes are attached to the needles and a mild current is applied. This is intended to increase the stimulation of the needle and is generally used for more painful conditions. Electroacupuncture produces a tingly, pulsating sensation. The acupuncturist can control the intensity and adjust it to a level that is comfortable for you.
Traditionally trained acupuncturists often use heat as well as needles to stimulate acupuncture points with a procedure called moxibustion , which involves a mixture of herbs rolled into a cigar-like shape. The roll is lit, and the burning end is held over the skin, allowing the heat to penetrate the area around the acupressure point. The moxa roll never touches the skin, so you will not be burned. The acupuncturist will ask you to let him or her know before it gets too hot. Moxibustion is generally quite pleasant. It is regarded as a "tonifying" treatment, which means it is intended to strengthen function.
How to Choose a Qualified Acupuncturist
Acupuncture is a licensed health profession in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Most states require at least 3 years of training at an accredited school of acupuncture and passage of a national board certification exam administered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Most states grant the title Licensed Acupuncturist, Certified Acupuncturist, Registered Acupuncturist, or simply Acupuncturist. A few states allow acupuncturists who have a doctorate from an approved or accredited college to use the title Doctor of Oriental Medicine (D.O.M.) or Oriental Medical Doctor (O.M.D.).
In most states, medical doctors can practice acupuncture with no training; in many states, chiropractors may practice acupuncture with 100 or fewer hours of training.
Approximately one-third of the states that license acupuncturists require their clients to have a referral from a Western medical practitioner (an M.D., osteopath, chiropractor, or dentist) prior to or in conjunction with acupuncture treatment. In the remaining states, acupuncturists may accept patients without prior referral.
Training programs have become fairly standardized in recent years, so an acupuncturist with qualifications in one state has essentially the same training as in other states. If you are in a state that does not license acupuncturists, ask to see evidence that the acupuncturist has completed at least 3 years of training at an accredited institution. Check with your state medical board for the exact licensure title and requirements in your state.
States That License Acupuncturists
The following states license acupuncturists:
The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture offers an acupuncturist referral list on their website .
Some acupuncture points lie over the lungs and insertion to excessive depth could conceivably cause a pneumothorax (punctured lung). Because acupuncturists are trained to avoid this complication, it is a rare occurrence.
Infection due to the use of unclean needles has been reported in the past, but the modern practice of using disposable sterile needles appears to have eliminated this risk.
- Reviewer: EBSCO CAM Review Board
- Review Date: 09/2014 -
- Update Date: 03/19/2015 -