More Parents Turning to Acupuncture for Kids' Pain, Anxiety

7 min read

Oct. 27, 2023 – Eleven-year-old Evan Hines is a typical pre-teenager. He loves fishing with his dad, chess club, and of course video games. He’s passionate about taekwondo and loves to bake. He also has hard-to-manage migraine headaches.

Evan was diagnosed about a year ago. He was admitted to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL, because his migraines were not responding to any medication.

During his hospital stay, the family was told about the hospital’s acupuncture clinic.

“I checked with Evan,” said his mother, Kathryn. “And I said this is what acupuncture is, are you game? And he said, ‘I’ll do whatever; it can’t be worse than having this kind of pain.’”

“I thought it might hurt, but it really doesn’t.” Evan said. “I don’t really have a word for it, but it will tingle sometimes, and it makes me feel very relaxed.”

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that has been used in some form for at least 2,500 years. 

Very fine needles, some as thin as a human hair, are placed into the skin at various points to stimulate the body to heal itself. It’s often used for pain management, digestive issues, emotional conditions, and stress, taking a “whole body” approach rather than treating each symptom individually. 

And parents are beginning to turn to acupuncture as a safe, effective, and holistic way to treat their children’s anxiety and physical ailments.

“It’s given him the opportunity to feel like he’s doing something where he has some control, like he’s made the choice to do acupuncture,” Kathryn Hines said. “When you look at the risks, you know, I think, like, every medicine I put my child on has more risks than going for acupuncture does.” 

Kym Householder is a registered nurse, doctor of acupuncture, and chronic pain coordinator at All Children’s. In the 6 years she’s been doing pediatric acupuncture, she has treated hundreds of patients, including Evan.

“Acupuncture balances and regulates all of the body’s systems,” she said. “It is safe, it’s natural, it’s drug-free, it’s not painful, it has very minimal side effects, it’s been helping people heal for thousands of years.”

The practice restores “homeostasis,” or balance, in the body, she said, while it also triggers the body’s self-healing. It stimulates the brain to produce natural painkillers, calms down the nervous system, and influences how the brain interprets pain signals. 

“It relaxes muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the body,” Householder said. “It can increase blood flow, bringing more oxygen to the tissues, it can even possibly allow you to decrease the amount of medications that you take.”

She said even infants can receive acupuncture.

“An acupuncturist has more tools in their toolbox than just acupuncture needles,” she said. 

One form of pediatric acupuncture doesn’t even use needles. Called sho ni shin, it uses various tools and instruments that don’t puncture the skin. “It’s a form of medical massage,” Householder said. “It is similar to acupressure. Acupressure is also a technique that acupuncturists use on the pediatric population that is equally effective, and it doesn’t use needles.”

She believes acupuncture is a great alternative to drugs. 

“It offers patients and families an excellent nondrug option to try to help them possibly avoid medication or use less medications.”

It’s one of the reasons Caroline Klein decided to treat her daughter’s anxiety with acupuncture.

Maya Klein is a 10-year-old from Chicago who loves circus art. She’s an aerialist.

She recently had her first acupuncture session and says it went well. 

“I was a little nervous at first,” Maya said. “It sounds scary, but it’s not at all, and it makes you feel great, and you can barely feel the needles going into you, and the anticipation is worse than the actual thing!”

Maya recently transferred to a new school, causing her a little bit of anxiety. So her mother, who has successfully used acupuncture for several years, decided it might help.

“When Maya started feeling anxious at school, I was wondering if it would be an appropriate technique to try to alleviate some of that anxiety,” Caroline Klein said. “I think that pursuing a lot of different ways to alleviate anxiety is important and not to just rely on medication and therapy. And I think that it’s good to try a variety of different techniques to see what works for you.”

Maya said acupuncture worked for her.

“You feel kind of relaxed, you’re in your comfort zone, and it feels like you just woke up from a really good sleep.”

Gudrun Wu Snyder, founder of Moon Rabbit Acupuncture in Chicago, is a doctor of acupuncture who treats Maya.

“Acupuncture on children can help kids have better sleep, better focus, and also then fewer of the other things that come with anxiety, whether it’s heart palpitations, sweaty palms – things that would naturally come up when you think about anxiety in a kid. These are all things that acupuncture can do,” she said. “It’s like meditation.”

“[For] children who really struggle in classroom settings, it’s going to take a few more treatments and it might be an ongoing therapy, just like talk therapy might be,” she said

According to Snyder, acupuncture has been shown to increase dopamine and serotonin – known as feel-good hormones that give you a sense of happiness – and decrease cortisol, the hormone that regulates the body’s response to stress. She says recent studies have shown it also helps decrease overall inflammatory response in the body.

“Acupuncture works on the meridian system,” she said. “It’s energy channels within the body through which we believe the ‘chi’ flows.”

Chi is considered the vital energy that circulates through the body. “When that chi is blocked, that’s when disease results, that’s when psycho-emotional disorders result,” she said. “So we help unblock the chi and create smooth flow of energy. It's kind of like how exercise does that for you, right? All of a sudden, you get your blood flowing, you feel really good. Acupuncture does the same thing.”

Snyder said board-certified, licensed acupuncturists typically have 4-plus years of training, 3,000-plus clinical hours, and have taken board certification exams before they’re allowed to touch a patient outside a student clinic. She said they know what they’re doing, and children are in very good hands.

David Miller, MD, is the founding chair and immediate past chair of the American Society of Acupuncturists. He is also the medical director for pediatric integrative medicine at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.

He agrees it can provide parents with a nice nondrug treatment option, but he said parents must make sure they pick someone who has the right training to lessen any risks.

“You definitely need a trained provider who knows how to apply it appropriately to the age group,” he said. “Kids' bodies are different than adult bodies, and so if you were to go too deep in the needling, you could puncture the lung, you could puncture an organ.”

Miller said the style of treatment matters, as does the environment. Some treatments can be too strong, or the setting may not be comforting to a child, which could make the whole experience traumatizing. “So it is really important that the provider is mindful of the unique issues with kids.”

Miller has been in private practice for 14 years and has given thousands of treatments to hundreds of children. 

“Almost any age group, including infants from a couple months old, can get acupuncture, but the style of the acupuncture, it’s very important that the style is appropriate to the age and that the practitioner understands how to treat those different age groups,” he said. 

There are acupuncture styles that are very gentle and light. 

“That type of style you can do on almost any age group. Heavier, more intensive acupuncture I seldom do with kids at all of any age almost until they become adolescents,” Miller said. 

It's important, he said, for people to understand that generally, acupuncture is applied as a series of treatments, much like physical therapy or athletic training.

“You’re not just necessarily going to go once and expect a fix,” Miller said. “It’s applied sort of regularly for a course of treatment in order to try to change a given health condition.”

Eventually, once progress is seen, treatments become more spread out and are used mostly for maintenance. 

According to Miller, there’s quite a bit of research about acupuncture on adults, and while studies in children tend to be smaller and more preliminary in nature, they still show positive signs of potential benefit.

Ira Cohen, MD, is a pediatric anesthesiologist and acupuncture specialist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, where they started doing acupuncture 10 years ago as an outgrowth of their chronic pain clinic.

“I haven’t found any children who are not alarmed by hearing that there is going to be needles, but once they’ve gotten one or two treatments, it’s like they’ve been getting it all their life in terms of their acceptance of it.”

Cohen has performed acupuncture on hundreds of children, some as young as 6 years old, but most of his patients are adolescents looking for pain relief.

“If it allows them to have 2 good days in the week as opposed to no good days in the week, from their point of view, that’s a significant change.”

Is it on the rise in children? These practitioners all say yes. And as families become more comfortable with it, the hope is that rise will continue. Florida, for example, passed a law in 2019 that requires pain providers to inform patients about nonopioid treatment options, including acupuncture.

Evan wants other kids to know there’s nothing to fear.

“Although it may seem a bit scary that it really isn’t something to be afraid of, it’s gonna feel really good and calm you down, and in the long run, you’re gonna feel much better with whatever you’re dealing with,” he said.