Acupuncture Goes Mainstream

Why doctors are increasingly turning to acupuncture to help their patients.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 04, 2011
3 min read

Tara McElroy, MD, is sticking more needles in her patients than ever before. Three years ago, the Cleveland Clinic OB/GYN completed a physician's course in acupuncture. With it, she says, she has had increased success in treating problems that often resist Western medicine, such as female sexual dysfunction and compulsive overeating. "Physicians feel helpless in these areas," McElroy says. "I needed something more for my patients."

Acupuncture, which has been practiced for millennia in China, is a small part of her own practice. But she makes frequent referrals to the clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine. There, acupuncture, which uses needles to stimulate specific parts of the body, is increasingly popular for problems like chronic pain, allergies, and asthma. Five thousand patients underwent acupuncture at the facility in 2009, up from 3,600 in 2007.

It's a trend that is mirrored across the country, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of NIH. In 2007, 3.1 million people tried acupuncture, a million more than in 2002, to relieve discomfort caused by fibromyalgia, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, low back pain, and other ailments.

"The demand is out there," says Hakima Amri, PhD, assistant professor of physiology and biochemistry at Georgetown University and director of Georgetown's master's of science degree in complementary and alternative medicine. But "there is an overall lack of an educational platform for physicians and future physicians," she says.

There is also a lack of definitive research on the effectiveness of acupuncture treatments. A recent NCCAM-funded study, for example, reported that acupuncture outperformed conventional medicine in relieving chronic back pain, but the same study also found that simulated acupuncture was just as effective as the real thing.

Still, more than 3,000 U.S. physicians integrate acupuncture into their clinical practice, including James Gordon, MD, founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine and author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression. When he began studying acupuncture 40 years ago, "acupuncture was considered at best a superstition," Gordon recalls. "Now, it's increasingly being accepted as part of mainstream medicine."

"I use acupuncture on nearly every patient I see," says Gordon, who treats his arthritic knees with needles every day. Gordon offers these tips for people interested in pursuing acupuncture treatment.

Pursue the big picture. Acupuncture, says Gordon, is only one part of traditional Chinese medicine, which also stresses the importance of herbal medicine, nutrition, massage, and other practices. He often includes these other approaches in his patients' care.

Do your research. There are as many as 20,000 licensed acupuncturists at work in the United States. Practitioners in most states must pass an exam administered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Find an acupuncturist who is well-credentialed, Gordon advises. The right person should also be able to put you at ease, answer your questions, and make you feel you are progressing in your treatment.