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On Pins and Needles: The Benefits of Acupuncture

by Corey Malinowski

Imagine that you are lying on a table as someone sticks long, thin needles into you all over your body.

Does this sound like a nightmare? Think again, it is a medical treatment option which is gaining in popularity. Acupuncture is a low-risk treatment option which can have some remarkable benefits for those suffering from a wide range of conditions. Best of all, acupuncture is not nearly as painful as it sounds, and many people actually report that they find the procedure relaxing.


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Health Conditions Acupuncture Can Improve

Acupuncture has been found to treat a wide range of conditions, including but not limited to:

  • Back pain:Researcher Dan Cherkin, PhD, and his colleagues conducted research for the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle to compare the results of acupuncture treatment against the results of traditional methods on back pain. 638 men and women with back pain participated in this study. The results showed that 60% of the patients who received acupuncture treatment had significant improvement, compared to 39% with traditional methods.
  • Indigestion and heartburn:In a study conducted by researchers at Rio Preto Medical college 42 pregnant women with indigestion and heartburn were split into two groups; one group underwent dietary counseling and took antacids, and the second added acupuncture on top of these two treatments. The results indicated that heartburn was reduced by half or more in 75% of the women receiving acupuncture, as compared to the less than 50% in the group not receiving acupuncture.
  • Chemotherapy side effects:The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society both state that acupuncture’s most convincing benefits for chemotherapy are reducing the nausea and vomiting that accompany it. Acupuncture is also believed to help treat weight loss, anxiety, depression, diarrhea, poor appetite, insomnia, and constipation.
  • Headaches: German researchers conducted a study in which they performed traditional acupuncture on one group of individuals with tensions headaches, minimal acupuncture on a second group, and a third group had no treatment at all. Over the 12 week duration those receiving traditional acupuncture reported that they had 7.2 more headache free days as compared to the control group. The minimal acupuncture group had 6.6 more headache free days.

According to licensed acupuncturist and author of Naturally Pain Free Letha Hadady, acupuncture treatment can be beneficial beyond simply treating specific conditions. She states that:

“The most noticeable and immediate benefits of acupuncture treatments are the release of our endorphins, natural pain-killer chemicals our body makes so that we can relax and feel circulation in areas of the body that have been painful or stressed.”

Hadady states that the release of pain and tension achieved through acupuncture can also help you breathe better, improve circulation, reduce the workload of your heart, and also decrease muscle tightness. She goes on to state that as a result of this acupuncture also helps to improve the functioning of internal organs.

According to Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (OAM) practitioner and faculty member at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health Richard Mitchell, acupuncture can also be used to treat “…swallowing problems, stroke, bell’s palsy, certain respiratory conditions like bronchitis, asthma, and certain gynecological problems…. [and] GI problems.”

Benefits of Acupuncture Compared to Traditional Medicine

Acupuncture also has many benefits which allow it to shine in comparison to other treatment options:

  • Short recovery time: Acupuncture is a non-invasive procedure and as a result there is little to no recovery time in most instances. This means that you can receive the benefits of acupuncture without needing days or even weeks to get your life back to normal.
  • Minimal side effects: Most drugs and treatments come with a list of side effects which can be worse than the symptoms they intend to treat; this is not the case with acupuncture.
  • No patient restrictions: Acupuncture can be used to treat almost any patient, regardless of their physical condition or age, with the exception of those with blood disorders or those on blood thinners. While medications and other treatments have physical restrictions to maintain the safety of patients, acupuncture is non-invasive and has minimal side effects as mentioned above, making it suitable for everyone.
  • Quick Results: Mitchell states that one advantage of acupuncture, which surprises most patients, is how quickly it can produce substantial effects without the use of medication:

“What is interesting [about acupuncture] is how well it treats pain. Where most people are not sure what [acupuncture] is, they come in, and in three or four sessions the pain is way down without narcotic.”

Risks of Acupuncture

While the benefits associated with acupuncture are numerous there are still some risks and drawbacks:

  • Organ injury: Because acupuncture involves sticking needles into the body there is a slight risk of an organ such as the lungs being punctured. This is highly unlikely, however, and is mainly a concern with unlicensed acupuncturists.
  • Infection: This is another unlikely hazard which can only happen if the practitioner does not use fresh needles for each treatment then the used needles can cause. This is primarily a risk with unlicensed practitioners.
  • High cost:Receiving acupuncture treatment from a licensed practitioner can be costly. Visits can cost between $65 and $120 each depending on the practitioner, and some of the best acupuncturists charge as much as $300 per treatment.
  • Not covered by many insurance providers: Many health insurance providers view acupuncture as non-essential treatment method and do not cover it. Even the companies which do often cover only a few visits, or only cover select conditions.

Is It Right for You?

What does acupuncture actually entail, though? Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles at various specific points of your body. These needles are most commonly left in for an extended period of time, but may also be gently manipulated or small electrical stimulation may be run through the needles. It is important to relax while the procedure is being performed, and if this is not possible acupuncture may not be the best choice for you.

There are a few things to be aware of before receiving acupuncture treatment. If you have bleeding disorders or are currently taking blood thinners then you should not receive acupuncture treatment. Some forms of acupuncture which involve electrical stimulation should not be received if you have a pacemaker. Finally, you should not receive acupuncture treatment if you are pregnant.

How to Find a Licensed Practitioner

If you are still considering acupuncture as a treatment option then you will need to find a reputable practitioner. An unlicensed or poor practitioner can turn what should be an extremely safe treatment option into a dangerous endeavor. Follow these tips on your way to finding a quality acupuncturist:

  • Check state regulations: Many states require a Master’s degree in Oriental Medicine from an accredited school to practice acupuncture. If your state does require the degree then you have a great start to your search, but if not you should make sure that the acupuncturist you are considering is fully licensed.
  • Ask around: One of the best ways to find a good acupuncturist is by word of mouth. Ask your friends, co-workers, or other acquaintances if they have visited an acupuncturist or if there is an acupuncturist which they would recommend. The best way to know if an acupuncturist is a good one is to ask people who have experienced their work first-hand.
  • Check his/her qualifications: You should look for a practitioner with a Master’s in Oriental Medicine or one with certification by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists (NCCA). Acupuncturists must pass a written and practical exam to be certified by the NCCA and may add the initials Dipl. Ac. (Diploma of Acupuncture) or Dipl. O.M. (Diploma of Oriental Medicine) after their names.
  • Ask questions:If you want to know more about the practitioner then the easiest thing to do is ask him or her questions. You should ask them questions such as:
    • Where did you study acupuncture?
    • Do you have a degree or certification?
    • How long did you train for?
    • How long have you been practicing acupuncture?
    • What experience does he or she have with treating your specific condition?
    • Is there anyone you can contact for references?

The Takeaway

Acupuncture can be an excellent treatment option for many people, and serves as a great compliment to many traditional treatment methods. The benefits are real and the risks are minimal. If you are suffering from a chronic health condition ask your doctor if acupuncture may be a good option for you.

This article was reviewed and approved by Dr. Richard (Kyo) Mitchell


Acupuncture Topic Overview, WebMD

Medical Acupuncture, EMedicineHealth

Acupuncture, University of Maryland Medical Center

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