This traditional Chinese medicine treatment works along with Western medicine—and in some cases, maybe even better than Western medicine—to heal what ails you.
How acupuncture heals
Acupuncture has been a part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years, but today most acupuncturists use the treatment in combination with Western medicine and philosophies. Here's how the treatment goes: Acupuncturists find pressure points or indentations along the body's meridians—which closely resemble Western medicine's layout of neurological pathways—and then insert small needles in key points to stimulate the flow of energy throughout the body. "The paradigm of acupuncture is really about helping you create greater balance and circulation of energy in the body and blood," says Jeff Millison, director of the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Department at Maryland University of Integrative Health. "When that happens, a person becomes constitutionally stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally across the board." Through a consultation, the acupuncturist determines which points need stimulating and then insert the needles accordingly. Post-treatment, the acupuncturist and patient determine if more sessions are necessary, along with any dietary changes or exercises. After reviewing clinical trials, the World Health Organization has identified 28 conditions that acupuncture can treat, and evidence suggests that there are therapeutic effects for over 60 more conditions. Read on for the woes you didn't know acupuncture could address.
Most people make their first visit to an acupuncturist because of pain—commonly in the low back, knee, and neck, according to Millison. Acupuncture works using the same pathways as opioid drugs, but stimulates the body's natural endorphins instead of relying on medication. A 2012 research review in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that acupuncture worked better than a sham treatment at alleviating four chronic pain conditions: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and shoulder pain. For extreme pain, consider electro-acupuncture, which uses specific frequencies to target pain-relieving pathways, including non-opioid kappa receptors. "It's a great, viable, and side-effect free alternative that sometimes has better demonstrated scientific results than opioids," says Kathleen Lumiere, assistant professor of acupuncture and East Asian medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. "So it's great for pain—it's not just good." These are the things your pain doc won't tell you.
Side effects of chemotherapy and radiation
Acupuncture can help treat nausea, a common side effect of chemotherapy. The treatment can also help with rashes that occur as a result of radiation treatments, and fatigue, which is a byproduct of chemotherapy and radiation, says Millison. Both chemotherapy and radiation, while helpful in eradicating cancer, can create excessive heat in a person's system. "Patients can become dry and feverish and feel nauseated, and even feel specific localized pain," says Millison. "So, acupuncture actually helps to cool a person off and helps to relieve some of that excess heat and inflammation that's a natural byproduct of those therapies." A research review published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2013 found acupuncture to be an effective treatment for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. (Here are loving ways to support a friend through cancer treatment and recovery.)
Using acupuncture for fertility is on the rise. Millison says acupuncture has been shown to boost fertility for both women undergoing IVF and those who are trying to conceive naturally. It goes back to the most basic concept of how acupuncture treatments work to balance the body. "When a person is better balanced, a lot of their health issues can resolve, including issues like infertility," Millison says. A study from Tel Aviv University found that when used in conjunction with Western fertility treatments, acupuncture increased conception rates by 26 percent, so 65.5 percent of the participants who got acupuncture were able to conceive, compared with 39.4 percent of the control group, who didn't get acupuncture. If you're looking to get pregnant, check out the everyday things that could be harming your fertility.
Acupuncture can aid in relieving the symptoms of heartburn, constipation, and even symptoms of ulcerative colitis. A University of Arizona study showed that twice-weekly acupuncture helped people with chronic heartburn more than doubling the dose of prescription antacids. Another study from 2014, showed that people with ulcerative colitis who got acupuncture and herbs combined with drugs saw improved symptoms at a rate of 93 percent, compared to 76 percent for people who only received drugs. "There are great responses to acupuncture for things like reflux," says Lumiere.
Acupuncture can help manage anxiety and depression. In her practice, Lumiere notices that patients often come in with a heightened state of anxiety or depression and leave feeling much better. That's because acupuncture can boost production of dopamine and serotonin as well as endorphins, all of which lead to improved sleep and mood. A 2011 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for patients with treatment-resistant depression. For those suffering from depression, Lumiere says acupuncture gives patients a window of time in which they have a physical feeling of well-being, which gives them a more positive worldview, potentially jump-starting a major shift in perspective.
Lumiere says acupuncture increases blood flow and circulation, making it a great treatment option for areas of the body that aren't getting enough blood flow, such as those impacted by symptoms of stroke. Impacted areas include an injured part of the brain or an affected limb. Acupuncturists use electro-acupuncture for stroke rehabilitation. In this treatment, a mild level of electrical stimulation triggers the muscles to contract and engages the nervous system.
Acupuncture benefits include relaxation, making it really helpful for treating sleep disturbances, including insomnia. A 2013 study found that acupuncture worked better than prescription sleep drugs to improve sleep quality as well as daytime functioning in people with insomnia. According to Lumiere, one of the ways acupuncture helps people fall or stay asleep is by easing anxiety. "Somebody might have trouble getting to sleep, they might wake up in the middle of the night, they might wake up too early," says Lumiere. Acupuncture can improve all three habits. Read more about how exactly acupuncture works its magic in the body.
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