Those who practice or benefit from acupuncture no longer question its safety or efficacy, nor do the teachers who have preserved its art and science since it began in China over 3,000 years ago. Acupuncture is now used all over the world, including countries with corporate-dominated health care. This endurance alone suggests that acupuncture has a role in the treatment of certain conditions.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, acupuncture is defined as “a family of procedures involving the stimulation of points on the body using a variety of techniques.” The practice involves the superficial insertion of needles on specific areas of the body, called acupoints.
Acupoints are selected body locations that are located along energy meridians or channels through which qi flows (see part 1 of this series). While traditional Chinese medicine focuses on flow and balance, certain acupoints correlate to certain areas of the body. These points are utilized with other alternative techniques using the same principles as acupuncture. Some other such techniques include acupressure, acu-massage, acu-tapping, acu-taping, electroacupuncture and moxibustion.
A proven therapy
The 2003 report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) summarized the evidence for acupuncture from 255 studies for various conditions and found proof that it was an effective treatment for 28 conditions. As a result, many health insurance plans now cover acupuncture for the treatment of certain conditions.
Most of the WHO conditions pertain to painful physical health problems, but depression was one of the mental health conditions for which acupuncture was shown to be effective. Subsequent randomized, control investigations have shown that acupuncture and antidepressant medication is more effective for depression treatment than medication alone.
There are many Western theories about how Eastern medicine works. One is based on “gate control theory,” which postulates that the stimulation of large nerves inhibits pain transmission in small nerves. Others claim it alters blood flow and/or inhibits stress responses. Still others claim the placebo effect causes acupuncture to work simply because patients believe it does.
Acupuncture has been reported to stimulate the brain’s own natural opiates called endorphins, leading some researchers to explore its role in treating chronic pain. Not surprisingly, acupuncture was described as an effective treatment for many different kinds of pain in the 2003 WHO report. Subsequent studies confirm acupuncture to not only be an effective treatment for chronic pain, but cost-effective as well.
Research extrapolating the effect of acupuncture on pleasure centers in the brain has not yet proven it to be a miraculous cure for substance use disorders. However, evidence does suggest acupuncture is an effective adjunctive treatment for opiate and alcohol withdrawal symptoms during detoxification and early recovery.
Some other applications of the ancient practice have also recently been explored. People with PTSD and those with schizophrenia have benefited from acupuncture. The therapy has also proven useful to obese patients participating in a weight loss program. Not many studies have examined it as a treatment for bipolar disorders, so more work is needed to determine its potential for treating that disorder.
Acupuncture carries no significant risk of adverse events when a sterile technique is properly used by a skilled professional, other than the possibility of slight bleeding or pain at needle insertion sites. Acupuncture education, licensure and practice are regulated by the California Department of Consumer Affairs Acupuncture Board. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine helps maintain quality standards through certification.
Sovereign Health of California treats individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders and dual diagnosis. We combine the most accurate and effective approaches to diagnostic assessment and treatment, providing optimal long-term outcomes. Comprehensive treatment includes novel, conventional, and holistic therapies tailored for each individual client. Our ongoing continuing care program provides the support patients need to remain free from addiction and recover from all of its consequences. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.