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Scientists Seek Clues for Acupuncture's Success

Learn how acupuncture might help when Western medicine doesn't have an answer.
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WebMD Feature

It's a mystery and a miracle: An acupuncture needle inserted in the pinkie toe changes a breech baby's position in the womb. How is this possible?

Ever since the 1970s, when this ancient Chinese tradition debuted in the U.S., Western researchers have sought to understand the phenomenon of acupuncture.

But the American public hasn't waited for the scientific answers. Growing numbers have sought out acupuncturists for chronic health problems -- when conventional medicine either hasn't worked nor has answers. According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 8.2 million American adults have used acupuncture -- an impressive number considering only an estimated 2.1 million American adults had used acupuncture in the year before.

Acupuncture is used as an adjunct treatment or an acceptable alternative to treat an ever-growing list of disorders: addiction, stroke, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, infertility, pregnancy problems, dental pain, and side effects from cancer treatment.

"The applications for acupuncture are endless ... people use it for sports injuries, for their emotional well-being, for everything," Peter Wayne, PhD, director of research at the New England School of Acupuncture, tells WebMD.

Recent advances in technology have helped unlock the biological mysteries of this 2,000-year-old medical practice. Researchers are closer to understanding how an acupuncture needle can subtly adjust the body's tissues, nerves, and hormones. The NIH and World Health Organization have both given formal approval of certain uses of acupuncture.

It helps to have an exploring, open mindset when considering acupuncture. "But even people who are not very open-minded and try it, find they feel good during the treatments," David S. Kiefer, MD, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, told WebMD in a previous interview. "Sometimes they are surprised."

What Acupuncture Can Do for You

Pain Relief: With the safety of pain relievers being questioned and one (Vioxx) being pulled from the market in recent months, a new study gives arthritis sufferers more reason to try acupuncture. One advantage of this type of treatment, says the NIH, is that the rates of side effects are substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions.

In what was hailed as "the largest, longest, and most rigorous study of acupuncture" ever conducted, acupuncture was found to reduce pain and improve function and movement among patients with osteoarthritis of the knee when used with other treatments.

That study paves the way for more and better research of acupuncture, Wayne tells WebMD. "This was a landmark study not only in its finding for osteoarthritis. It shows that if we put resources into a carefully designed trial, we're likely to see something definitive ... we may be able to say with more certainty that other [applications of acupuncture] are effective."

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