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Acupuncture Gains Acceptance in Western Health Care

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The ancient theory, Lao explains, is that patterns of energy, or Qi, flowing through the body are essential for health. Disease occurs when there are disruptions in this flow. Acupuncture involves placing needles to stimulate certain points close to the skin, which is believed to correct these energy-flow imbalances.

At his Philadelphia clinic, Cyrus treats about 60 patients a week. "These people are on several [medications]; they have a range of problems, from clinical depression to anxiety to a myriad of [muscle and bone pain syndromes] ... carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain," he says. "They're being managed by medication, but they don't want to be medicated anymore. They've tried everything under the sun, and nothing's worked. So they seek out people like me."

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.

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