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Acupuncture Gains Acceptance in Western Health Care


But how much is really known about acupuncture?

Over the years, the NIH has funded a variety of research projects on the procedure, says Brian Berman, MD, director of complementary medicine at the University of Maryland. "There was a flurry of research in the 1970s, after a New York Times reporter had acupuncture anesthesia during surgery while he was following [former President] Nixon in China," Berman says. "There were a lot of very small, not really well-done, studies. Then interest sort of died off."

But the last seven years have brought renewed interest in acupuncture research. Once on the FDA's "experimental devices" list, acupuncture needles are now regulated with the same standards as surgical scalpels and other medical devices. Larger studies have been funded, and groups like Berman's have studied the worldwide scientific literature on acupuncture, he tells WebMD.

At a 1997 consensus conference, the NIH announced that "the strongest evidence for acupuncture was in prevention of nausea and vomiting and for postoperative oral surgery pain," Berman tells WebMD. Other areas that look promising include stroke rehabilitation, as well as treatment of addictions, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, osteoarthritis, low-back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, and fibromyalgia, a disease that causes widespread muscle pain.

Berman is a principal researcher in a study on osteoarthritis of the knees being conducted on nearly 600 elderly patients. More than 200 studies have been performed on acupuncture, and most have shown favorable effects from the treatment, he tells WebMD.

But how can the ancient Chinese concept of Qi translate into Western medical terms?

"There's a lot of basic science work that's been going on for many years to understand the mechanism of acupuncture," Berman tells WebMD. "They feel that when you put the needle into acupuncture points, you are stimulating different [chemicals] in the brain. When different [chemicals] are stimulated, they have different effects in the body."

In addition to the traditional Chinese explanation of energy imbalances, there's another theory, Berman says. "A form of 'gate control' operates within the body, regulating pain. When you put a counter-stimulation in a different spot -- not at the pain site -- you send a signal that stops the sensation." Some argue that the placebo effect, as well as the synergy between patient and practitioner, may be at work, Berman tells WebMD, "But that's part of all medicine," he says. "So placebo effect may be part of the mechanism, but I think there's probably an effect beyond that."

Acupuncture is part of many drug treatment programs, says Janet Konefal, PhD, a certified acupuncturist and chief of complementary medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Studies have shown acupuncture is "helpful in getting cleaner faster," she says. "It reduces craving, improves sleep, helps people think clearer if they get enough treatments. The result is that people stay in treatment. [The] biggest problem with substance abuse treatment is dropout." At last count, she says, 600 substance-abuse clinics -- many of them government-funded -- were using acupuncture.

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