For weeks, Nathan Suver had a serious pain in the neck. It was a recurring problem, related to a back injury, and nothing made it go away. Until, that is, his doctor jabbed him with pins.
“He did it as part of a routine visit,” recalls 35-year-old Suver. “He has acupuncture training. He just said, ‘This will help with the pain,’ and stuck 10 little needles in me.
He first put one in my neck and then one in my wrist. It felt like lightning shooting through my body from my neck to my wrist, but it was only slightly uncomfortable.”
The treatment was worth that slight discomfort, because Suver’s pain went away.
A week later, he bragged about the success. “What’s even more amazing is that while I was convinced it wouldn’t work, it did anyway. So much for the placebo effect.”
Acupuncture, from an Eastern perspective, is all about energy and its flow through your body. If that flow is blocked, the thinking goes, pain or illness results. By gently tapping as many as 20 thin needles into your body at strategic points, acupuncturists try to re-establish the flow. That’s a compelling but not necessarily convincing explanation. So Western medicine is working to understand the mechanisms of acupuncture. “There are many details we still don’t understand, but essentially acupuncture seems to stimulate specific muscles and nerves, activating changes that reduce pain and symptoms and promote healing,” says Dr Kwokming James Cheng, whose review in Acupuncture In Medicine aimed to identify the precise neurological significance of common “acupoints” – areas targeted in acupuncture.
How acupuncture works may be unclear, but the benefits stick out. Research shows that this ancient therapy can be an effective treatment for a wide variety of ailments. We consulted experts and recent studies to find out which conditions seem to benefit most from acupuncture.
Stick a pin in…Headaches
The pins-and-needles approach might work for intense or unremitting headaches that OTC therapy can’t keep at bay. Acupuncture taps directly into recent research theorising that tension headaches – the most common kind – are not caused by muscles alone. Neurochemicals associated with mood and emotional wellbeing, such as nitric oxide and serotonin, may also play a role. “The needles appear to send signals to the brain to adjust the levels of these neurochemicals,” says Cheng.
“Acupuncture is a preventive treatment to reduce headache frequency and intensity,” says Dr Klaus Linde, a complementary-medicine researcher at Technical University Munich, in Germany. In a recent review of 11 studies on people with frequent tension headaches, Linde found that nearly half of patients who had acupuncture reported a 50 percent decrease in the number of days they had headaches, compared with a 16 percent drop in study participants who received painkillers and other routine care instead.
Stick a pin in…Gastrointestinal problems
Saverio Mancina couldn’t eat a thing. “I had severe cramping and diarrhoea constantly,” he says of his digestive troubles. No prescription drugs helped, and tests for parasites and celiac disease came back negative. In addition to altering his diet and exercise regimen, he also turned to acupuncture. After three sessions, his symptoms nearly vanished.When Mancina had acupuncture, his practitioner poked not just in his torso but also in his arms and legs. Acupuncturists insert needles into seemingly unrelated parts of your body because they believe there are local points – areas from where the pain radiates – and distal points, which correspond to remote areas of your body. The Western explanation: “Your extremities have more nerve endings than your abdomen, so poking them can trigger a stronger response than a needle near your stomach can,” says Cheng.
Science says Acupuncture’s ability to combat basic stress may be a key part of its effectiveness with gastrointestinal disorders, says
Dr Tony Chon, chairman of the acupuncture practice at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. “We know there’s a strong link between stress and some GI symptoms, including indigestion,” Chon says, “and acupuncture has been used for centuries for relief and treatment.”
For upper-GI problems, acupuncture can beat antacids. In a 2007 University of Arizona study, people with chronic heartburn who didn’t respond to prescription antacids underwent twice-weekly acupuncture. Their symptoms improved far more than those of people who took a double dose of the drug. Their chest pain decreased 82 percent, heartburn dropped 83 percent and acid reflux fell 77 percent. Researchers speculate that the needle treatments prompt a decrease in stomach acid and speed up digestion, so less acid backs up into the oesophagus. “It also seems to reduce pain perception in the oesophagus,” says study co-author Dr Ronnie Fass.
Stick a pin in it… sports injuries
Many injured athletes use acupuncture for relief. “It helps your body recover from
injury faster,” says acupuncturist Marianne Fuenmayor. One theory, according to Cheng, is that your body may respond to the needles by further increasing the flow of oxygenated blood to the injured area, which helps speed the healing process.
You should see your doctor if you’re injured, but if he or she says you don’t need any treatment beyond rest, then ask if it’s okay to go to an acupuncturist to help manage the pain or discomfort. “I’ve used it very effectively to treat ankle sprains, muscle soreness, tennis elbow and tendinitis,” says Dr John Cianca, a rehabilitation specialist. This year, a Johns Hopkins study found that people with chronic tendinitis or arthritis who had 20-minute acupuncture sessions twice a week for six weeks had less pain and disability than people who only thought they were receiving acupuncture (the needles didn’t penetrate the skin). Additionally, a 2008 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that participants who were jabbed for muscle soreness 24 and 48 hours after they exercised to exhaustion reported significantly less pain than people who didn’t receive the treatment.
Stick a pin in…Anxiety and depression
A little setback – say, South Africa losing in the tri-Nations – can trigger mild anxiety. A big bummer – losing your job, for example – can cause serious depression. In either case, acupuncture can help. “In the recent recession, I’ve been treating a lot of men who are under stress,” says licensed acupuncturist Nicholas Zimet. “After treatment, they feel more relaxed and able to deal with the pressures of life.” Why the mental boost? When needles enter your earlobes, hands or feet, Cheng says, your brain releases neuro-transmitters and other chemicals that affect stress and mood.
A recent study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that depressed patients with severe anxiety can benefit from acupuncture. The study, which paired acupuncture with the medication fluoxetine (a generic form of Prozac) also reported benefits for patients who couldn’t tolerate the side effects commonly caused by the medication, including decreased sex drive, difficulty maintaining erections and delayed ejaculation. Not a bad trade-off.
Stick a pin in….Back pain
Treating back pain is by far the most common reason people turn to acupuncture. “It simply works much better than any of the pills we prescribe,” says Cheng. Just as with sports injuries, the needles seem to increase blood flow to muscles and tissues. (Sometimes the practitioners will also run electric current through the needles. Physical therapists have been using electrical stimulation for years to promote healing and Cheng says the needles help the current travel deeper into the muscles.)
A University of Michigan study this year backed up Cheng’s assessment. The researchers used brain imaging to see how needling the skin affects the brain’s ability to control pain. “Acupuncture seems to help pain receptors in the brain bind more easily to opioids such as endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller,” says Dr Richard Harris co-author of the study. It also helps the receptors bind to painkilling drugs such as codeine or morphine. And the better those work, the less you hurt. If you decide to give acupuncture a try, look for a licensed or a medical acupuncturist. Contact the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa to find a registered acupuncturist in your area on 012 329 4001 or visit www.ahpcsa.co.za.