AWB Volunteer Valerie Overby treating a community member in Santa Maria Xadani, Oaxaca, Mexico
Myth: Acupuncture is painful
Acupuncture is rarely painful in the hands of an experienced and well-trained practitioner. The needles used for treatments are typically thinner than a human hair, and are slightly rounded at the tip. When inserted, they slide gently into the tissue without “tearing” through it like larger hypodermic needles which have jagged, diagonally-shaped points. Also, many acupuncturists insert needles that are packaged inside small plastic tubes for extra comfort, called “guide tubes.” The practitioner places the tip of the tube on the acupuncture point and taps it gently but firmly so that the needle glides out of the tube and into the skin. Often, the practitioner slightly stimulates the inserted needle to elicit a noticeable tingling sensation which in Chinese is called “Da Qi” and in biomedicine is called “acupuncture distention sensation.” This indicates that the needle has successfully activated an electromagnetic conduction process in the body.
Myth: Acupuncture does not really work
Acupuncture has been used for over 3,000 years in Asia for treatment of pain, disease, and mental health problems. Randomized controlled studies, improved outcome studies, and standard scientific measures like neuroimaging (MRI) have demonstrated that acupuncture is a good therapy for pain. The World Health Organization and the U.S. National Institute of Health recommend acupuncture for a wide variety of conditions, including neurological problems and musculoskeletal pain. The Veterans Administration’s Technology Assessment Program (TAP), which rated the evidence for acupuncture by systemic review and meta-analysis, recommends its use for low back and neck pain, knee osteoarthritis, nausea, vomiting, dental pain, fibromyalgia, tennis elbow, TMJ, menstrual and labor pain.
As with pain, clinical trials have shown that acupuncture helps relieve trauma and stress-related symptoms like anxiety, depression and insomnia. A meta-analysis of 20 acupuncture studies for depression concluded that not only is it an effective treatment, but acupuncture used alone is comparable to antidepressants in improving mood and daily function.
Recent research indicates that acupuncture is also an effective way to reduce post-traumatic stress (PTS). Currently, the VA Health Services Research and Development Service is conducting a study on the effect of acupuncture on PTS-related insomnia and a pilot study on how acupuncture might improve quality of life in veterans with traumatic brain injury and PTS. And, the Department of Defense has recently funded a New England School of Acupuncture study on acupuncture for treatment of Gulf War Syndrome, which includes symptoms of fibromyalgia pain and post-traumatic stress patterns.
Myth: Biomedical doctors don’t respect the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.
As more people use acupuncture, biomedical doctors and hospitals increasingly recommend it as a helpful therapy. According to the John Hopkins Medical Library, about 3,500 MDs in the U.S. are trained to provide it directly to their patients! Doctors’ attitudes about acupuncture tend to be culturally based-for example biomedical doctors in countries such as England, Germany and Japan refer their patients for acupuncture at higher rates than American doctors. Nevertheless, surveys show that almost half the doctors in America refer patients each year for some kind of complementary medicine (CAM), including acupuncture. Currently, acupuncture is used by medical doctors in the U.S. military and is provided by large hospital systems such as Kaiser Permanente to millions of patients throughout the nation.