Impotence Gets 'Needled' in Acupuncture Study

May 5, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Acupuncture has been used to treat people in the Far East for thousands of years, so it may strike some people as amusing that it is being studied in the West as a potentially "new" treatment for everything from back pain to depression. According to some Austrian scientists, erectile dysfunction, or impotence, can now be added to that list.

Impotence can be caused by many factors, from imbalances in hormones, to actual physical damage, to psychological or emotional problems. Paul F. Engelhardt, MD, of the Hospital Leinz in Vienna, Austria, and colleagues are in the midst of an ongoing study to see if men suffering from impotence that has more of a mental cause can be helped by acupuncture. Engelhardt presented preliminary findings at a meeting of urologists here this week.

Acupuncture involves placing very fine needles in various parts of the body to relieve pain or stress. All 13 men in the study, average age 42, received acupuncture. But they were split into two groups receiving different treatments.

One group received the actual acupuncture for impotence. The other group received acupuncture but in areas that weren't related to relieving impotence. The researchers did this to see if there was a strong "placebo effect," in which the patients have relief from just thinking they're receiving treatment.

The first group, which contained seven men, received two acupuncture sessions a week for 10 weeks using "acupuncture with several points for erectile dysfunction that are traditional Chinese acupoints," Engelhardt says.

Six men in the second group underwent four weeks of acupuncture. "The so-called placebo group," Engelhardt tells WebMD, "was also treated with acupoints, but these points did not correlate with the diagnose of [erectile dysfunction]."

In order to make sure the men's impotence was not linked to a physical cause, they were put to a test. For three nights, they were given a drug to cause an erection. Based upon something called "RigiScan testing," all the men achieved a "full erection," according to Engelhardt.

At one point, the groups were switched. "Our results are that none of the patients of the placebo group reported good results of the placebo treatment, so all of them were crossed over into design of group one," Engelhardt tells WebMD.

The final results? Eight of the participants claimed they were "cured." "About two-thirds of our patients reported good results of our acupuncture therapy; they defined themselves as cured; they didn't demand any additional therapy," Engelhardt says.

"About one-third of the patients told us that they had some improvements of their quality of life, that their erections were a little bit better than at the start of the treatment," Engelhardt says. "But it was not sufficient enough, so they wanted some additional therapy, and we treated them with Viagra."

The trial is ongoing, and some of the patients just finished treatment, "so how long does it help or how long does it work, in the case of successful treatment, I cannot say," Engelhardt tells WebMD.

But, Engelhardt says, the importance of the study is not just in a successful outcome, but also in a successful process. "You see these patients twice a week; for 10 weeks, [there's] strong interactive communication with the patient," Engelhardt adds. "I think this is also a point that you communicate with the patient, you talk to them. Patients with [impotence from a psychological source] want to talk, but I don't think it's the psychotherapy ? it's all together. You make real treatment with acupuncture, and you have good follow-up and talk to your patient."

James Dillard, MD, tells WebMD, "We do know that acupuncture can affect mood, we know that acupuncture can affect a person's sense of well being, so that's not surprising in a way. [But], I'd want to see a bigger study." Dillard is a member of the medical staff at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York and medical director for Oxford Health Plan's Alternative Medicine program. He also is an acupuncturist.

Dillard says he doubts the acupuncture could bring about a "physical" change. It occurs by a different process, he tells WebMD.

"I think it's more likely that it's working on a [psychological and emotional] level. It's making the person feel better, it's improving their mood, making them feel a little sharper, making them feel a little more relaxed, Kaboom, [it] gets better," Dillard says.

Michael Heltemes, director of clinical studies at Urology Clinics of North Texas, says there's an outside chance acupuncture could work for impotence, and people would do themselves a "disservice" to rule it out without "evaluating all the information."

"You look at the principle that acupuncture works on, and it works on nerve endings and points ? the process of stimulating an area to send nerve impulses, we artificially do that chemically all the time, so the possibility of that being able to occur is a very realistic one," Heltemes tells WebMD.

Heltemes adds that much interest surrounds finding a magic medication for impotence, "but it's interesting to know that someone is actually working on a therapy that uses the body's [own] resources."