Got an illness? Needles may help.

Acupuncture… I swear by it, and I know many others who do, too. Back when it was considered mere quackery in the West, my physician father was studying it and even practiced it on his college football injuries to decrease inflammation and help with pain.

Yesterday, Wall Street Journal health columnist Melinda Beck reported on new research being conducted to determine whether the technique actually works.

Acupuncture is a treatment in Traditional Chinese Medicine based on the concept that there is an invisible life force called “qi” (pronounced “chee”) which travels up and down the body along meridians. While that may sound New-Agey at first hearing, it’s actually nothing of the sort:

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[Dr. Helms] says, while the word doesn’t exist in Western medicine, there are similar concepts. “We’ll say, ‘A 27-year-old female appears moribund; she doesn’t respond to stimuli. Or an 85-year old woman is exhibiting a vacant stare.’ We’re talking about the same energy and vitality, we’re just not making it a unique category that we quantify.”

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, illnesses and pain are due to blockages and imbalances in the meridians, and inserting needles at certain points can apparently help:

As fanciful as that seems, acupuncture does have real effects on the human body, which scientists are documenting using high-tech tools. Neuroimaging studies show that it seems to calm areas of the brain that register pain and activate those involved in rest and recuperation. Doppler ultrasound shows that acupuncture increases blood flow in treated areas. Thermal imaging shows that it can make inflammation subside.

Scientists are also finding parallels between the ancient concepts and modern anatomy. Many of the 365 acupuncture points correspond to nerve bundles or muscle trigger points. Several meridians track major arteries and nerves. “If people have a heart attack, the pain will radiate up across the chest and down the left arm. That’s where the heart meridian goes,” says Peter Dorsher, a specialist in pain management and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. “Gallbladder pain will radiate to the right upper shoulder, just where the gallbladder meridian goes.”

Of course, there are those who believe the jury is still out on acupuncture, and who claim the placebo effect accounts for the positive results. Undoubtedly, the placebo effect is involved, just as it is with any treatment, including pharmaceutical drugs. But new research shows  successful outcomes for arthritis, migraines, infertility, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and the mitigation of chemotherapy effects. And people seek it for many other ailments as well.

Beck reports that doctors in the Navy, Air Force and Army are already using acupuncture to treat “musculoskeletal problems, pain and stress in stateside hospitals and combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.” It is also being used to treat stress problems in Haiti.

In 2007,  3.2 million Americans were estimated to have used acupuncture  — over 1 million more than in 2001. Acupuncturists are required to be licensed in most states and the FDA mandates that needles must be sterile and new.

You can read Beck’s entire article here.


  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in “Catholic Digest,” “Faith & Family,” “National Catholic Register,” “Our Sunday Visitor,” “Urbanite,” “Baltimore Eats,” and Zo

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