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Posted on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 5 a.m.

Acupuncture proves to be useful in treating pain

By Ask Dr. K


A friend keeps telling me to try acupuncture for my low back pain. But I don't understand how a bunch of needles will help. Can you explain how acupuncture works?


Acupuncture is a technique of traditional Chinese medicine. The theory is that the body maintains a delicate balance of two opposing forces. Disease occurs when these forces are out of balance. This imbalance is believed to block the flow of vital energy. This energy regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance.

The Chinese believe that by inserting thin needles at specific points on the body, acupuncture unblocks the flow of vital energy. This, in turn, restores health to the body and mind.

Acupuncture is used for a wide variety of complaints. These include chronic pain, headaches, side effects of cancer treatment, addiction and hot flashes. Acupuncture may be used on its own, or it can complement Western medicine.

As a Western-trained doctor, I can't assess the traditional Chinese theory behind acupuncture. That's because I don't know how to measure "opposing forces" or "vital energy." If you can't measure the central concepts of a theory, you can't test how valid the theory is.

Western medicine explains acupuncture's effects through a different theory. We think acupuncture stimulates chemicals that transmit pain, certain hormones and immune system molecules. However, our theories also are unproved.

Even though we don't know how it works, I do believe that acupuncture can be valuable, particularly in treating pain. That's because studies that meet Western scientific standards have shown this to be true.

During your first appointment, your practitioner will ask detailed questions about your health, lifestyle and behaviors. These questions will range far beyond your specific symptoms. This is in keeping with the mind-body nature of traditional Chinese medicine.

Be sure to tell your acupuncturist about all of your medical conditions, all medications and other treatments you are receiving. (On the flip side, also tell your doctor you are having acupuncture treatment.)

During treatment, the acupuncturist swabs each puncture site with alcohol to disinfect it. He or she then inserts the acupuncture needles at various locations on your body. You should feel no or minimal discomfort as the needles are inserted. Most people either feel relaxed or energized when the needles go in.

The needles are metallic, solid and hair-thin. Your acupuncturist should use only sterilized needles that he or she disposes of after one use.

After treatment, you may have bleeding, soreness or bruising where the needles were inserted.

If you decide to try acupuncture, choose a licensed acupuncturist. But keep in mind that licensure is never a guarantee of good quality.

A lot of Western-trained doctors are suspicious of treatments, like acupuncture, that are called "alternative" or "complementary" medicine. I think treatments that have persisted in human societies for thousands of years need to be taken seriously. I also think they need to be tested scientifically, according to the principles of Western science.

Fortunately, many medical schools (like my own) have mounted serious efforts to study complementary and alternative medicine. I predict that more alternative practices will prove useful in scientific studies, and then become part of standard practice.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information:

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