For millions of people who live with pain, acupuncture is no longer an exotic curiosity. It's now widely accepted among the medical community. And it's pretty popular with patients as well. A recent survey found almost 3.5 million Americans said they'd had acupuncture in the previous year.
"In our clinic, we have been in existence for like 22 years," says Ka-Kit Hui, MD, founder and director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. "We have a 4- or 5-month wait for new patients." Acupuncture -- in which needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments are applied to certain places on the skin -- has come a long way since 1971. That's when the 2,000-year-old Chinese healing art first caught on in the United States, thanks to a story in The New York Times. The piece was written by a reporter who had visited China and wrote about how doctors healed his pain from back surgery using needles.
"Pain medication is ... not really meant to be a way to maintain or manage chronic pain.” -- Joe Schrank, MSW
Many people worry that taking narcotic painkillers will lead to addiction. If your doctor prescribed medication to treat your pain and you take it as directed, you shouldn't have a problem.
But some people do get addicted, and there are usually warning signs along the way, like these:
In 1996, the FDA gave acupuncture its first U.S. seal of approval, when it classified acupuncture needles as medical devices. In the 20 years since, study after study indicates that, yes, acupuncture can work.
"There's nothing magical about acupuncture," Hui says. "Many of these [alternative] techniques, including acupuncture, they all work by activating the body's own self-healing [mechanism]."
And that's the main goal of acupuncture: self-healing.
"Our bodies can do it," says Paul Magarelli, MD, a clinical professor at California's Yo San University. "We are not animals who are dependent on drugs."
If you're deciding if acupuncture is right for you, it's best to be open to its benefits and skeptical of claims it's a magical cure-all.
"It should be part of a comprehensive approach to solve problems," Hui says.
Acupuncture has long been recognized as an effective treatment for chronic pain. In 2012, a study found acupuncture was better than no acupuncture or simulated acupuncture for the treatment of four chronic pain conditions: