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Americans Embrace Acupuncture's Healing Power

New science backs up the benefits of a 2,500-year-old treatment

THURSDAY, Dec. 22, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- According to practitioners of traditional Chinese acupuncture, inserting a tiny needle into the little toe can help heal eye problems because the toe and eyes are connected via the same "meridian."

Not surprisingly, Western experts cast their own jaundiced eye upon such a claim -- until a recent high-tech imaging study supported the ancient theory.

"Those researchers found that on functional [real-time] MRI, activity in the visual cortex in the brain was actually stimulated by this acupuncture occurring in the toe," said Dr. Lixing Lao, a licensed acupuncturist who is also fully trained in Western medicine.

Lao, an associate professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, said those findings are just one of many instances where modern science is proving the efficacy of a millennia-old technique.

And that information is giving American patients new confidence in trying out acupuncture for themselves, he said.

"Before, more patients were rather skeptical," Lao said. "Now, not only patients want to see me, but also doctors say, 'Hey, I want to make an appointment.' There's been a big change."

That change came in large part from a 1997 National Institutes of Health consensus statement based on an expert panel's comprehensive review of the literature. The panel concluded acupuncture to be an acceptable treatment for the relief of a wide variety of conditions, either when used in conjunction with regular medical treatment or as an acceptable alternative therapy. The conditions listed by the NIH panel included asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, headache, lower back pain, menstrual cramps, myofascial (muscle) pain, osteoarthritis, tennis elbow and even stroke rehabilitation.

Some of the studies -- including a recent report finding acupuncture effective against lower back pain -- came from Lao's center at the University of Maryland.

How does acupuncture work? "People are still trying to figure that out," Lao said, but there are a few key theories:

  • Endorphin release. "Acupuncture may trigger the brain to release these chemicals," Lao said. "They're endogenous opiates -- similar to [pain-relieving] narcotics, but all natural."
  • Better circulation. "People have talked about a 'peripheral' effect to acupuncture," Lao said, "stimulating the dilation of blood vessels in local areas. That would improve circulation and metabolism locally."
  • Anti-inflammatory effects. According to Lao, pain often originates in inflamed tissues. Acupuncture appears to lower inflammation by reducing levels of a pro-inflammatory hormone, cortisol.
  • Changes in heart rate. "Studies are showing that acupuncture changes areas of the brain linked to the heart, modifying heart rate through the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems," Lao said.

He stressed that acupuncture does not always bring about the same level of pain relief or symptom relief as modern pharmaceuticals. On the other hand, he said, "it has no side effects," meaning that it can be used safely over the long term.

According to Lao, the biggest difference between drugs and acupuncture lies in their underlying mechanism of action. "Acupuncture isn't just about symptom management -- it's also addressing fundamental problems, the underlying cause [of the problem]," he said. "It's more about stimulation, as opposed to the suppressive effects of drugs."

Of course, acupuncture involves needles -- a source of fear for many people. "Lots of people think 'Oh, it's like a hypodermic needle,'" Lao said. But he pointed out that the average acupuncture needle is much thinner, equivalent to the diameter of a human hair. "Lots of patients won't feel it at all, others may feel just a tiny sting," he said.

In the United States, all accredited acupuncturists now use one-time-only disposal needles, so needle safety is a non-issue.

But Lao said it's important to look for that accreditation when choosing a practitioner.

"About 40 states have now passed laws to monitor the practice of acupuncture," he said, with these laws mandating anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 hours of training before licenses are granted. Most acupuncturists have to pass a state board exam. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine also certifies experienced acupuncturists throughout the country.

Proper regulation makes sense for a discipline that deserves to be taken as seriously as any other medical field, Lao said. He believes there's more and more evidence that "acupuncture helps the body respond to every system that's not working. So whatever you're looking at, you're going to see some change."

More information

To learn more about acupuncture, head to the National Library of Medicine.

SOURCE: Lixing Lao, M.D., Ph.D., C.M.D., licensed acupuncturist, associate professor, Center for Integrative Medicine, department of family medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore
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