The Doctors Next Door

Does Acupuncture Really Work?

Well I gave it a go recently myself.  See, I've developed a back problem.  That's not supposed to happen, right? I take care of myself, exercise regularly, enjoy the sins of consumption in

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moderation...nonetheless, here I was 6 months and counting, left leg going numb, cramping in my calf, aching in my lower back. What should I do??!?

My usual approach, ignore it and it will go away, wasn't working.  I generally like that strategy, even though it hasn't worked for my gastroesophogeal reflux, nor my seasonal allergies, nor my laundry but I tried it once no avail. 

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Before I get into my own experience of acupuncture, we should cover the science. Let's interview  the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), a respected, unbiased resource, regarding their take on acupuncture. 

Dr. Carrie: "Ms. AHRQ can you review for us, what the scientific evidence tells us about the effectiveness of acupuncture treatment?"

Ms. AHRQ: Uh...sure...uh...well I guess we're not 100% sure if it works or when it seems to, why it works.  I guess you could say, it could be worth a try, Dr. Carrie.  Especially since your usual 'ignore it' strategy  (smirk) seems to have flopped."

Dr. Carrie: "Thank you Ms. AHRQ. Very helpful (smirk).

Truth be told, there is some scientific data that acupuncture can be effective. It's most often used for the following conditions: The reason it's so hard to tell if it works or why is that researchers try to compare it to "sham" acupuncture. The best quality studies need a control group and for acupuncture, that control involves choosing "sham" sites for acupuncture.  But sometimes that sham acupuncture works!  That's not so unusual since we all know that the placebo effect is successful on average, 30% of the time. The question is whether the locations chosen for the sham procedure are actually valid acupuncture points.

So, like with many things medical, the "it can't hurt" approach can be a valid option.  Well actually, it can hurt, albeit rarely. You should be aware of the risks of acupuncture before going ahead with your own personal experiment.  Serious harms are rare but can include:
  • infection
  • punctured organs
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  • broken needles  
Minor adverse effects include
  • forgotten needles
  • worsening of symptoms
  • minor bleeding
  • fatigue
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • fainting
  • headache
So how did it go for me?
Well this is what happened. I was speaking at a medical conference and in so doing I keep a barstool handy at the front of the room since my back problem results in my being unable to stand for more than about 15 minutes in one place.  This is an improvement over the 5 minutes that was the case previously. (I should tell you that I have undergone physical therapy and had an epidural injection. Those things have helped to get me to this level of improvement.)

So I apologized to the group for needing to sit while I gave my talk and disclosed my back problem as the reason.  At the break, a physician attendee came up to me and and asked what I'd been doing for my back.  He wanted to know if I'd tried acupuncture. Now this was the second time a physician colleague had suggested this option so I'd had some time to consider it and was pretty receptive to the idea.  Just so happens, having been trained in this ancient Chinese are, he had brought his needles along with him.   Lucky me?!

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So he did what he called "Battlefield Acupuncture" and shot about 5 little needles into my left ear. To my surprise, I felt instantaneous relief!  I was able to get through my conference much more easily that day. The good doctor suggested I have the more traditional method of acupuncture performed upon my return home.  And I may yet do that. However, based upon my well-entrenched "ignore it" approach, I'll be more likely to pursue his suggestion if the acupuncture comes to me as it did at the conference.

To give credit where credit is due, I should mention that Battlefield Acupuncture was developed in 2001 by Richard C. Niemtzow, MD, PhD, MPH, an Air Force colonel who performs acupuncture for the US Air Force on a full time basis.  He published on the technique in the journal, Medical Acupuncture.  So you can see that even those who are trained skeptics, having many advanced degrees, are coming on board with this traditional Chinese healing art.  I even noticed that my insurance company will pay for acupuncture for my back problem! Go figure that!



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1 Comment

DocAltMed said:

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I am a chiropractic primary care physician that frequently uses acupuncture for a range of disorders. There is quite a bit of research published on the use of acupuncture for a variety of illnesses. Because my primary professional degree is as a doctor of chiropractic, that is usually my go-to strategy for back pain. But I'm not afraid to call in (or put in) the needles if I think they will help.

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