In the cosmopolitan 21st century, most of us have some familiarity with acupuncture. This therapy, which usually involves inserting very fine steel needles into the skin at particular points, forms part of the ancient system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM.
Practitioners and patients alike claim that acupuncture alleviates a wide range of medical conditions, but as with any form of medicine, care must be taken to find out whether these claims stand up to scientific scrutiny. Carried out properly, acupuncture is a safe treatment and an excellent complement to conventional medicine. Not only that, it is beginning to emerge as an effective therapy for a number of chronic, hard-to-treat ailments. These are described here, along with the scientific evidence for its use.
Lower Back Pain
An astonishing 80% of us can expect to suffer from lower back pain at some point in our lives. Not only that, 30% of all sufferers will go on to develop a chronic condition. This is partly the downside of human beings living longer lives than in previous generations. It’s also partly the consequence of our being ‘bipedal quadrupeds’, four-legged animals that evolved to walk upright, our heavy heads supported precariously on s-shaped spines.
Surgery is the most common treatment option for severe back pain, and one which has a variable success rate. Happily, studies suggest that acupuncture is effective for lower back pain both when it’s acute and when it has become chronic. So if you’re not keen on the idea of surgery for your back problem, it’s well worth trying a course of acupuncture to see if it gives you relief.
Talk to anyone who has experienced migraine and they’ll tell you it’s far more than just a bad headache. The nausea, visual disturbance and sensitivity to light and smells make this condition truly disabling. Common drug treatments have side effects which can make them hard to tolerate, and it’s tough to match patients with the right treatment simply because migraine is a highly individual condition.
Research investigating the use of acupuncture for migraine alongside the recommended medications showed a significant decrease in the number of headache days experienced by sufferers. The magnitude of the improvement was dramatic enough to put acupuncture on the list of migraine treatments recommended by the British National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), the body auditing the effectiveness of medical treatments in the UK.
A survey conducted in 2009 found that approximately 3% of the population were at that time going through a period of depression. This research was carried out with the help of adult participants living in their own homes, so the number of people experiencing depression across all sections of society is probably far higher. Drugs are the most common form of treatment offered to sufferers of depression, but they may only be effective in one third of cases.
We already know that the right kind of psychotherapy can be tremendously effective in helping to cure depression, but now there could be another weapon in the fight against depression: acupuncture. A 2013 study comparing the results of acupuncture to outcomes achieved with medication found that acupuncture worked as well as medication, worked faster and worked without distressing side effects.
Although little known outside medical circles, this chronic condition affects a lot of people: estimates suggest as many as 7% of the overall population are sufferers. Characterized by pain and stiffness throughout the body, fibromyalgia also comes as part of a syndrome, when it tends to be accompanied by chronic headaches, disturbed sleep and irritable bowel syndrome. Many of its sufferers are women, and they make up a large number of the rheumatology patients in most hospitals.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition whose intensity naturally ebbs and flows, so treatment is focused on managing the most troublesome symptoms. Acupuncture is used for this purpose by many fibromyalgia sufferers, and recent evidence supports anecdotal claims that it can be effective. Without more comprehensive, better designed research, it isn’t possible to make more emphatic claims for acupuncture as a treatment for fibromyalgia, but this early evidence suggests it’s certainly worth considering.
Although acupuncture isn’t a proven cure-all, we now know that it’s an effective treatment for the four conditions described above. And as better, higher quality research begins to be carried out on a wider scale, other benefits may yet be uncovered. So if you are suffering from lower back pain, migraine, depression or fibromyalgia and would like to try complementary medicine, acupuncture is likely to be an effective alternative for you.