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Acupuncture is often used as an alternative to pain-killing medication.

All About Acupuncture

Even before the recent opioid epidemic, many of our patients sought alternative methods of pain relief. One topic our family practice doctors in Delray Beach receive many questions about is acupuncture, which is often used as an alternative to pain-killing medication.

So here are some facts about this popular procedure.


What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a technique in which tiny needles are inserted into the skin at various points on the body by trained practitioners. A form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it has been used there for at least 3,000 years.

It is said to:

  • relieve most types of pain (low-back pain, as well as neck, osteoarthritis, knee pain, headaches, etc.)
  • relieve insomnia
  • reduce hot flashes associated with menopause
  • relieve respiratory and seasonal disorders
  • reduce pain and discomfort from chemotherapy
  • relieve digestive disorders
  • reduce high blood pressure
  • relieve urinary and reproductive disorders
  • reduce stress and anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • aid in addictions to nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs
  • and treat many other conditions.


It is estimated that more than 10 million acupuncture treatments are provided annually in the U.S., and many insurance companies cover it. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has trained 2,400 people to provide “battlefield acupuncture” for pain relief. The World Health Organization (WHO) endorses it.

And last month, in response to the opioid epidemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a move to cover acupuncture treatments for older adults who are part of a study to assess its effectiveness for chronic low back pain. It is also exploring whether to cover acupuncture for everyone receiving Medicare, with a final decision expected in October of this year.


How does it work?

Chinese practitioners of acupuncture say it works by relieving blockages in what is known as the “life force” (known as “qi” or “chi”—pronounced “chee”) and improving this energy flow throughout the body. The qi is thought to flow along specific pathways (“meridians”) in the body which, when stimulated by the acupuncture needles, then becomes balanced.

Many Western doctors believe the traditional acupuncture points are actually muscles, nerves, and connective tissue that benefit from this type of stimulation to release endorphins—the body’s natural painkillers—in much the same way that massage does.


What do the skeptics say?

Negative opinions about the effectiveness of acupuncture range from mild incredulity to vehement scorn, with many calling it outright “quackery” and “worthless.”

Some skeptics who do admit that it seems to work for many people claim its effects are the result of the placebo effect. “Placebo” is Latin for “I will please,” and these doubters attribute relief of pain and other conditions to the patient’s desire to please the doctor by believing they have improved, rather than experience actual improvement. The placebo effect is a well-known phenomenon that must be accounted for in clinical trials of medications.

On the other hand, many veterinarians have incorporated acupuncture into their practice, with apparently a good deal of success in treating pain, nausea, anxiety and other similar conditions. It is doubtful that the animals receiving such treatment are attempting to “please” their vet by reacting positively to acupuncture.


What studies have been done?

It is difficult to conduct studies on acupuncture because it is an invasive procedure. That is, presumably a patient would know whether needles were being inserted in their skin. Some researchers, however, have tried to find ways around that by devising methods that simulate acupuncture techniques.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a meta-study in 2012 which concluded: “Based on the results of our review, acupuncture appears to be effective for treating headaches and, although more research is needed, seems to be a promising treatment option for anxiety, sleep disturbances, depression and chronic pain. It does not, however, demonstrate any substantial treatment benefit for substance abuse.” The study also noted that no studies on PTSD or sexual functions were included in the review.

Another 2012 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, analyzed 17,922 patients to judge the effectiveness of acupuncture on four chronic pain conditions: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and shoulder pain. Researchers concluded that “acupuncture was superior to both sham and no-acupuncture (the control group) for each pain condition.


Does it hurt?

Done correctly, there is usually very little sensation involved when the needles are inserted, although some people do report some slight discomfort.


Is it safe?

According to the NIH, “Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced, well-trained practitioner using sterile needles. Improperly performed acupuncture can cause serious side effects.”

It also recommends checking the acupuncturist’s credentials, asking about the number of treatments that will be needed, and the cost of each treatment.

If you’re interested in trying acupuncture, we can help you find licensed, certified practitioners in the Delray Beach area.


Also, if you do use acupuncture or any other forms of complementary medicine, please let us know. Some conditions are contraindicated for acupuncture. These include those with a bleeding disorder, women who are pregnant (acupuncture may induce premature labor), or those with a pacemaker.

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