There are no studies that show the number of U.S.-trained physicians who suggest acupuncture to their young patients. However, several major hospitals around the nation -- including Boston Children's Hospital and the University of Maryland's Kernan Hospital -- employ acupuncturists to treat kids.
Dr. Kathi Kemper, a pediatrician and instructor at Harvard Medical School, frequently recommends her young patients see an acupuncturist to help with conditions ranging from chronic pain to migraine headaches to nausea from chemotherapy.
"Acupuncture can be a viable and helpful therapeutic option that is much less uncomfortable than any other kind of injection," Kemper says. "A lot of people -- children included -- feel it's pleasant; the overall experience is comforting, relaxing and they feel better physically and emotionally."
Needles are a source of dread for many children, so it might be hard to believe a child would willingly get poked by acupuncturist.
However, doctors and acupuncturists say children can learn to overcome their fear. Ellen Silver Highfield, an acupuncturist who treats children at Boston Children's Hospital, has been known to try all sorts of techniques to calm children.
She'll put the needles in the child's parents first to show the child they don't hurt. She sometimes shows snapshots of her own children looking comfortable during acupuncture. She has even stuck acupuncture needles in her cat.
"I really work hard to bring it to a level that each child can deal with," Highfield says. "I do not put needles in screaming children."
Acupuncture is the ancient Chinese practice of inserting fine needles into the skin. The Chinese believe there's an energy flow called Qi running through the body. Acupuncture relieves pain and helps other symptoms of illness by restoring the balance of the energy flow.
In recent years, Western medicine has tried to figure out whether or not acupuncture works. Dozens of studies have been done, but none have offered a clear answer about whether the treatment has benefit, according to a consensus statement from the National Institutes of Health.
However, many studies seemed "promising" for acupuncture's ability to treat conditions that include chemotherapy nausea, postoperative pain, headache, menstrual cramps, osteoarthritis, asthma and lower back pain, the NIH statement says.
One theory about how acupuncture works is that the needles stimulate the release of endorphins, the feel-good, pain-relieving hormones.
Kemper, author of "The Holistic Pediatrician," isn't put off by the lack of definitive research. Even in Western medicine, the precise mechanisms for many well-accepted treatments remain cloudy, she says.
"We used aspirin for hundreds of years before we figured out why it worked," she adds. "And we still may not have the complete picture of why it works."
In a survey by Kemper and her colleagues of 47 young people aged 5 to 20, 70 percent said acupuncture helped their symptoms. Two-thirds said they found acupuncture pleasant.
Dr. Lixing Lao, an acupuncturist with the Complementary Program at Kernan Hospital and an associate professor of family medicine at University of Maryland School of Medicine, says age 5 or 6 is a good age to start acupuncture.
Younger children do better with a massage called Tui Na, which uses the principals of acupuncture but doesn't involve needles, Lao says.
Lao has used acupuncture to treat everything from attention-deficit disorder to asthma to diarrhea. The number of sessions varies depending on the disorder. Diarrhea or fever might require only one session. An eating disorder might take 10 sessions, he says.
A child's session usually lasts about 10 to 20 minutes.
What message does Lao have for skeptics?
"Try it," Lao says. "Many of my patients tell me they are afraid or skeptical the first time they come. But after the first treatment, they become a believer. The best evidence is their own spirit. The patients feel better after treatment."
What To Do
Read more about acupuncture at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Or you can check out the National Institutes of Health Consensus Statement on acupuncture.