What Role for Acupuncture in Chronic Disease?

What Role for Acupuncture in Chronic Disease?

February 2010

Scientists aren’t ready to claim that acupuncture works for any specific disease -yet.  But studies supported by the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) have yielded promising evidence that this ancient practice modifies perception of pain and its processing by the brain and that it may be helpful for pain management.

Using the latest technologies in neuroimaging and genomics, Richard Nahin, Ph.D., M.P.H., NCCAM’s Senior Advisor for Scientific Coordination and Outreach and other NCCAM-support scientists are drawing a scientifically coherent picture of how acupuncture affects the body.  They can see physiological effects – changes in the brain’s pain centers – with acupuncture.  They’ve observed gene expression and molecular changes in the nervous and immune systems, and they hope one day to be able to predict which patients are most likely to benefit from acupuncture.

The process of acupuncture involves stimulating points on the body, using thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by hand or by electrical stimulation.  Chinese tradition teaches acupuncture practitioners that the aim is to improve levels of qi, which is considered the energy force behind all life, and restore the balance in the opposing forces of yin and yang.  The needles are placed along meridians, invisible energy channels described in ancient Chinese manuscripts as running the length of the body.

To date, much of the progress in clinical research on acupuncture has come from an interdisciplinary approach that includes experts in acupuncture, clinical trial methodology, biostatistics, and relevant diseases such as osteoarthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Dr. Xiaoming Tian, L.Ac., C.M.D., a member of the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, says “In my experience, acupuncture can be used for a number of symptoms and conditions, most often as complementary therapy.”  He reports that, in his clinic inBethesda,Maryland, most patients seek acupuncture treatment for pain and pain-related conditions.  He says, “In arthritis, I have often found acupuncture beneficial – for joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and joint function, as well as range of motion.  I find that it is best used in the early stages of disease.”

Dr. Tian believes that it is important to work with the patient’s physicians and other medical professionals in order to provide the best care and service for patients.  He comments, “We find that acupuncture works well in conjunction with conventional treatments – such as surgery, physical therapy, chemotherapy, and radiation – and with chiropractic therapy.”

Dr. Tian says that over 80 symptoms and conditions are treated in his clinic, including chronic and acute pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, sciatica and neuralgia, autoimmune diseases, and allergies and asthma.

Bruce Rosen, M.D., Ph. D., principal investigator of an NCCAM Center of Excellence on Acupuncture and Brain Activity, atHarvardMedicalSchool, says, “There’s something about the specifics of acupuncture that seem to evoke a more dramatic response in certain parts of the brain than other kinds of sensory stimuli.  It suggests there’s something special about acupuncture that’s worth trying to understand.”

Source: Excerpted from “Acupuncture and Pain:  Applying Modern Science to an Ancient Practice,” Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Focus on Research and Care, NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, February 2010


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