While traditional Chinese medicine may not be embraced as a whole by mainstream America, acupuncture has appeared to gain widespread acceptance as a complement to Western medicine. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey of complementary and alternative medicine use by Americans, an estimated 3.1 million U.S. adults and 150,000 children had used acupuncture in the previous year. Between the 2002 and 2007, acupuncture use among adults increased by three-tenths of one percent (approximately one million people).
Acupuncture, a practice that originated thousands of years ago in China, involves inserting extremely thin needles into the skin at strategic points on the body. The traditional Chinese theory behind the practice holds that the insertion of needles at specific points can help balance the flow of the life force known as qi or chi, which can restore health and cure illness. More recently, Western medical research has shown that acupuncture can activate various centers of the brain and induce a very wide range of physiological responses. Scientists now believe that this could possibly explain why acupuncture may be beneficial for so many different types of conditions.
According to Paulette Saddler, M.D., clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, many patients are interested in the potential of acupuncture to help relieve pain and improve their general health.
“More people are interested in taking a holistic approach to managing their health,” says Saddler, who provides acupuncture services at the Doctors of USC-Downtown. “People are very interested in acupuncture’s ability to help them reduce their medication. If we can help people in pain reduce their dosage of medication, that’s a success.”
Acupuncture patients include people seeking relief from fibromyalgia, chemotherapy-induced nausea, neck and back pain, migraines and many other conditions. It was even shown to help turn breech babies. A patient’s response to acupuncture can vary greatly, and therefore, treatment regimens are highly individualized.
“Most people will see us weekly to treat the acute pain or issue, and then move to a maintenance schedule of perhaps once a month, as part of their overall wellness,” says Saddler.
A fear of needles may prevent some people from seeking out acupuncture, but Wendy Yu, the licensed acupuncturist in charge of overseeing Childrens Hospital Los Angeles’ acupuncture program, works with patients to help overcome that fear.
“I find that talking to the patient about what to expect often helps, as well as explaining that the needles we use are hair-thin,” says Yu. “For those with a more severe fear of needles, I show them on myself or a parent or guardian what it's like to have a needle inserted. For young children, I demonstrate on a stuffed animal or doll.”
Acupuncture needles are metallic, solid, and hair-thin, and most patients feel no or minimal pain as the needles are inserted. Some people feel energized by treatment, while others feel relaxed. Improper needle placement, movement of the patient, or a defect in the needle can cause soreness and pain during treatment.
As a result of increasing demand for alternative care coverage, many group health insurance companies provide varying degrees of alternative care coverage. The amount of coverage depends on each individual plan. Patients unsure of their insurance coverage for acupuncture can ask the following questions of their provider:
- How many treatments does the policy pay for?
- Is the limit for acupuncture shared with other alternative therapies?
- What conditions are covered for acupuncture?
- Is coverage limited to in-network acupuncturists only?
- How are deductibles and co-pays applied?
Patients interested in incorporating acupuncture into their wellness or pain management plans should discuss the topic with their doctor.
“Many physicians are becoming more comfortable with acupuncture as part of a treatment plan,” says Saddler.
People should choose their acupuncturist with care, and research their qualifications and experience. Yu recommends that patients ask the following questions when deciding on a practitioner:
- Where was he/she trained?
- How long was the training?
- How long has he/she been in practice?
- What experience does he/she have in treating your specific ailment?
- For parents of children about to undergo acupuncture, what experience does the practitioner have with treating pediatric patients?
Prior to an initial acupuncture treatment, Saddler advises patients not to smoke, drink alcohol or eat heavy meals.
“We don’t want you to fast, because we don’t want you to become hypoglycemic and risk passing out,” she says. She also adds that patients should resist the urge to stop taking their medications in advance. “Hopefully, acupuncture will help patients reduce their medication load, but they should be patient, because that may take some time,” says Saddler.
Parents of children undergoing acupuncture need to feel comfortable with the treatment, so as not to pass on their own tensions and fears to their children.
“Parents should reassure their child that acupuncture is a very common procedure and should be relatively painless,” says Yu. “The treatments are very short in duration and should only help their child's health condition.”
For more information about acupuncture, or to find an acupuncturist, visit the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture website.