Acupuncture is a technique that involves the insertion of thin needles through the skin to stimulate specific points of the body. While acupuncture has been a key component of traditional Chinese Medicine as a technique to balance the flow of energy known as chi, Western practitioners use acupuncture to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. The later practice is believed to boost the body’s natural painkillers and increase blood flow. Scientists have recently begun exploring the connection between acupuncture and pain relief through a number of studies, including a large cohort study of patients with chronic pain conditions, such as back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and shoulder pain. In this study, acupuncture was found to be an effective treatment of chronic pain.
Currently, patients seek acupuncture to relieve discomfort associated with a number of diseases and conditions, including:
- Chemotherapy-induced and postoperative nausea and vomiting;
- Dental pain;
- Headaches, including tension and migraine headaches;
- Labor pain;
- Lower back pain;
- Neck pain;
- Osteoarthritis; and
- Menstrual cramps.
While risks of acupuncture are low when administered by a certified acupuncture practitioner, possible side effects include soreness, organ injury, and infection.
Most recently, acupuncture has been investigated for its potential to act as an alternative to opioids for pain treatment. Due to the increased risk of addiction associated with opioid prescription, researchers are investigating alternative pain management treatments. The FDA has recommended that health care providers be knowledgeable about the range of available pain management therapies, including acupuncture as a nonpharmocologic therapy. Acupuncture has been found to lessen opioid side effects, such as pruritus, and to reduce dependency on opioids. While research has shown acupuncture to be effective in pain management, experts have recommended further research to be completed with more stringent experimental design to gain more conclusive scientific evidence.
Furthermore, acupuncture has been studied as a potential treatment for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI). Many groups have shown that acupuncture is effective in treating the symptoms of PTSD/TBI known as the trauma spectrum response, which includes chronic pain, headache, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance. But additional, future research may better determine the long-term potency of acupuncture so as to potentially establish this method as a treatment for PTSD/TBI.