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Does Acupuncture Work?

By Jill Krasny

Nearly two decades ago, Dr. Elizabeth Trattner embarked on a career that most Americans would have found dubious. Though she was fortunate to have Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard-educated wellness guru, as a mentor, her decision to become an acupuncturist was off the beaten path for most aspiring health practitioners.

“Back then, people viewed acupuncture as fringe, freaky, weird,” Trattner tells MainStreet. “They thought, ‘you’re putting in needles while someone’s lying down on a table.’ That’s not soft and fuzzy.”

Years later, alternative medicine is booming, and acupuncture, in particular, is big business. American adults spent $33.9 billion on visits to practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and on purchases of related products, according to a study completed last year by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Additionally, visits to acupuncturists tripled between 1997 and 2007 to 17.6 million, according to a recent federal report, reflecting a change in the way Americans spend on health care. It appears that acupuncture is finally going mainstream.

Originating in China, acupuncture is a thousands-year-old treatment used to treat a wide variety of diseases and ailments, from post-partum depression to lower back pain, and even menstrual cramps and migraines. The process, which entails sticking hollow needles on specific points of the body, is said to relieve discomfort. And today, more Americans than ever are swearing by it.

Bekah Seitz, an acupuncturist based in Portland, was first turned on to the treatment after she’d exhausted every option under the sun to treat her chronic eye allergies and skin irritation.

“We tried pills that I took orally, at least 20 kinds of drops and even steroids,” Seitz recalls. “The steroids didn’t do any good. Actually, it didn’t do anything … Everything was so uncomfortable and I was so desperate. Our insurance covered acupuncture, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Within two weeks, there was some relief, and by a month, it was gone for good.”

This miraculous cure-all effect is what many Americans are looking for.

“Patients are demanding it,” Seitz says, because “maybe they just don’t seem to respond to Western treatments, or don’t respond as fully as they’d like, or they want to get off the meds.” Still, “they’re seeing that it works, and doctors are saying that it works in their patients and because of this, they’re sending them to see acupuncturists.”

Thanks to these doctor recommendations, the practice is gaining legitimacy. The number of American hospitals offering alternative or complementary medicine shot up to 20.9% in 2008, from 8.6% a decade prior, according to a study by the American Hospital Association.

Even the U.S. military has begun offering acupuncture to veterans, in a move to help troops dealing with a complex array of issues, namely post-traumatic stress disorder. Aricular acupuncture, which involves placing needles at certain points in the ears, is said to produce “a very calming effect that reduces stress markedly,” Seitz says.

Acupuncture Goes Mainstream

So what’s behind this new interest in acupuncture? For starters, many of the stigmas that once surrounded the practice have vanished in recent years.

“I think a lot of it is timing,” says Sharon Sherman, an acupuncturist who works privately in Chestnut Hill and Center City Philadelphia. “If you think about it, Oriental medicine comes predominantly from China. You find it throughout Korea, Vietnam, France, and it’s really widespread, but China was closed until the Nixon era in the 70s, when the first reports of acupuncture being used as an anesthesia were coming in.”

“There was a negative stigma about China and communism at the time, and a lot of mystery around it,” Trattner says. “But it went from being considered experimental to having its needles become a regulated medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And I think that created more validity.”

Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deemed the sterile, single-use needles as a regulated medical device in 1997, while Congress passed legislation in 1992 that provided $2 million in funding to help create the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “an office within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate and evaluate promising unconventional medical practices.”

A Placebo Effect?

Still, despite these advances, not everyone is convinced that acupuncture is all it’s cracked up to be. Experts, spurred by a recent study in the journal Arthritis Care and Research, have called the purported benefits of acupuncture a placebo effect.

The problem with acupuncture, these critics contend, is that it’s helpful to patients because they believe it will be, and so they feel better. But to truly determine acupuncture’s efficacy, it’s important to look at flaws in the study itself, explains Dr. Lixing Lao, director of the TCM Research Program at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine.

In the study, researchers from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston performed acupuncture on 455 patients with painful knee arthritis. What they found was that it provided no more relief than a sham treatment in which the needles were not inserted as deeply and stimulation didn’t last as long as it would in a proper acupuncture session.

But while the results of both treatments were similar, “you can’t measure what’s happening inside the patient” with acupuncture, says Lao, because acupuncture ought to be assessed by its overall effectiveness. “What’s important is that the patient is getting better,” Lao says. “Sham control doesn’t apply because acupuncture works.”

“Another misunderstanding is that a disease is widespread and acupuncture doesn’t follow a map,” Lao adds. Seitz agrees: “Often [researchers] are testing one or two points on everybody, like they would a medication, but acupuncture is so highly specific to each person, on some people it might make their condition worse, or diagnose the wrong case of whatever they have.”

Risk Factors

Of course not all acupuncture treatments are created equal. As the British Medical Journal recently explained in an editorial, cases of infections, including hepatitis B and C and HIV, have been reported worldwide and are only the “tip of the iceberg.” As such, it’s important to make sure an acupuncturist is implementing safety measures like the “use of disposable needles, skin disinfection procedures and aseptic techniques,” writes researcher Patrick Woo.

Finding an Acupuncturist

Today, medical doctors can take 200-300 hours of training to become licensed acupuncture practitioners. However, a licensed acupuncturist requires much more extensive training: more than 2,000 hours, roughly equivalent to three to four years.

Becoming licensed is akin to getting a master’s degree, so when researching acupuncturists, make sure you select one who attended an accredited facility and who is certified by the non-profit National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, or NCCAOM. “This is the only way to test the practitioner,” notes Lao.

Getting health insurers to cover acupuncture can be tricky, and as Sherman explains, “it depends where you live, and on the state and the legislation.”

Sessions can run about $70 to $120, and while most conditions might require at least three treatment sessions, other painful chronic issues could require continued treatment.

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