What is acupuncture

A centuries-old method of treatment in which a trained practitioner inserts very fine needles into specific points on the body. In the Eastern medicine perspective in which acupuncture originated, health is a state of balance and illness or disease a state of imbalance of the body’s life energy or chi. Chi flows along invisible energy channels in the body called meridians. These meridians roughly correspond to the body’s physical nervous system. Acupuncture points along the meridians correlate to body organs, systems, and functions. These points often are in locations distant from their corresponding organs. For example, acupuncture points in the ear (auricular acupuncture) correlate to various body locations as well as certain areas within the brain related to addiction. Acupuncture is an integral element of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and other Eastern systems and is used for both diagnosis and treatment. Western practitioners have adapted the concepts of acupuncture to Western principles of medicine. In the Western medicine perspective, acupuncture points correlate to locations along the nervous system. Needles inserted into these locations alter nerve impulses and stimulate the release of various chemicals that aid in pain relief and healing. It is likely, although not proven, that acupuncture causes cells to release chemicals called endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Western practitioners often use mild electrical stimulation, heat, or cold applied to the inserted needles to intensify the acupuncture effect.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) undertook a review of studies conducted to assess the effectiveness of acupuncture and in 1997 released a consensus statement:

Acupuncture as a therapeutic intervention is widely practiced in the United States. While there have been many studies of its potential usefulness, many of these studies provide equivocal results because of design, sample size, and other factors. The issue is further complicated by inherent difficulties in the use of appropriate controls, such as placebos and sham acupuncture groups. However, promising results have emerged, for example, showing efficacy of acupuncture in adult postoperative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting and in postoperative dental pain. There are other situations such as addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma, in which acupuncture may be useful as an adjunct treatment or an acceptable alternative or be included in a comprehensive management program. Further research is likely to uncover additional areas where acupuncture interventions will be useful.

Acupuncture. NIH Consensus Statement Online 1997 Nov 3-5; 15(5):1–34.

Acupuncture and Parkinson’s Disease

There are few structured studies of acupuncture and its effects on the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. However, surveys do suggest that more than half of people with Parkinson’s disease use at least one alternative therapy in addition to conventional treatment, and acupuncture is among the most popular. People with Parkinson’s disease who receive acupuncture treatments anecdotally report a range of mild to moderate improvement in symptoms such as tremors, dyskinesias, gait difficulties, anxiety, stress, muscle rigidity, and pain. From a Western perspective the reasons for such effects are unclear. Acupuncture cannot cure Parkinson’s disease, but as it does not interfere with conventional treatments, most doctors support its use as a complementary therapy.

Finding a Qualified Acupuncturist

As with any form of therapy or treatment, finding a qualified practitioner is essential. In the United States, most states require some form of training and licensing. In many states only those who are already licensed to practice as some form of health care provider such as physician, chiropractor, dentist, registered nurse, naturopathic physician, TCM practitioner can be licensed to practice acupuncture. In a few states, only a physician (medical doctor or doctor of osteopathy) can be so licensed. And in a few states, anyone who completes a minimal training program and passes the licensing test can become an acupuncturist.

Look for an acupuncturist who has both adequate training and experience; who always follows sterile techniques (uses sterile, disposable needles, new from the package for each treatment session) to prevent infection from needle-borne pathogens such as hepatitis; and, preferably who works frequently with people who have Parkinson’s disease and other progressive, degenerative disorders. Doctors sometimes can recommend acupuncturists in the local community.