At first the two dozen needles dotting Linda Prince’s back, shoulders and limbs didn’t do a thing for a year. But on the fifth visit to an acupuncturist, that changed: All of a sudden, the pain was gone,” says Prince, a physician’s assistant from Gaithersburg, Md.
Prince is among the millions of Americans who have turned to the ancient art of acupuncture to treat everything from allergies and arthritis to migraines and depression. Rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is moving into the Western medical mainstream on a rising tide of success stories and new studies.
The treatment got a major boost this month when a federal panel of experts said there is “clear evidence” acupuncture works for certain conditions. The panel, convened by the National Institutes of Health, declared acupuncture effective for treating nausea caused by anesthesia, chemotherapy or pregnancy, and for pain after dental surgery. But because no one knows for sure how acupuncture works, the panel also called for more research.
The public interest in acupuncture “has opened the door for those ‘in the medical field to step forward, says Janet Konefal of the University of Miami’s Center for Complementary Medicine. There, researchers are studying the use of acupuncture to treat cancer, drug addiction and Parkinson’s disease.
Konefal sees physicians “definitely warming up to acupunctures” Gary Kaplan of the Medical Acupuncture Research Foundation estimates that about 4,000 doctors nationwide use acupuncture.
Still, many doctors are unconvinced, The American Medical Association, which Las been highly skeptical of acupuncture, has said only that it will review the NIH panel’s findings. But as more medical schools offer course work and as research increases, acupuncture seems likely to keep gaining acceptance.
At Packard Children’s Hospital at California’s Stanford Medical Center, the pain management team isn’t waiting for more studies. For four years, the team has used acupuncture to treat children’s respiratory problem, cystic fibrosis and other ailments “It’s worked remarkably well, says nurse Sandy Sentivany-Collins.
Like California, most other states allow non-physicians to practice acupuncture if they meet certain training requirements. Nationally, an estimated 12,000 non-physicians practice acupuncture.
Vernice Breslin, a former scientific researcher now studying acupuncture at the Maryland Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine, first tried it after a car accident left her with chronic pain that other treatments did not effectively relieve. “It’s the thing that helped me,” Breslin says. Now expecting her first baby, Breslin has also used the needling technique to control early-pregnancy nausea
As Americans like Breslin spend $10 billion a year out of their own pockets for acupuncture and other alternative treatments, insurers are taking notice. Acupuncture is definitely the next major area of interest” for the health-care industry, says industry consultant John Weeks.
This year, Connecticut-based Oxford Health Plans became the first major U.S. health-care provider to offer optional comprehensive coverage for acupuncture. HMO giant Kaiser Permanente covers acupuncture for its nearly 9 million members if prescribed by any of its doctors.
And while the NIH endorsement could prompt other insurers to follow suit, some people aren’t waiting. For patients who have paid for acupuncture themselves, cost isn’t a major deterrent. Says Prince: “If it works, it’s worth it.”
How it works
There are two main theories:
The traditional Chinese theory says illness results from imbalances or blockages in a person’s energy channels. The flow of energy is restored when acupuncture needles stimulate certain point, within those channels’
Many Western doctors believe the needles may stimulate the nervous system to release endorphins or other naturally occurring chemicals and hormones that affect mood, health and pain perception.
Pain: physical and financial?
When the ultra-fine needles are tapped into the skin, the sensation can range from a mosquito bite to a flu shot. Much depends on the location (hands and feet tend to be more sensitive), the condition being treated, and the acupunctures technique. Needles often are left in several minutes or longer, but usually are not felt once inserted. (Needles are discarded after each treatment)
Cost per treatment is generally $40-$75; several visits often are necessary.
To learn more about acupuncture
The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture offers a free physician referral service. Call 1-800-521-2262 or check the academy’s Web site (http://www.medicalacupuncture.org).
The National Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance can provide referrals to licensed non-physician practitioners. 253-851-6896.
The American Association for Oriental Medicine provides background information and referrals. 610-266-1433.
Another helpful Web site: www.acupuncture.com.