WHAT IS ACUPUNCTURE?
Acupuncture involves stimulating points on the body, using thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by hand or by electrical stimulation. Chinese tradition teaches acupuncture practitioners that the aim is to improve levels of qi, which is considered the energy force behind all life, and restore balance in the opposing forces of yin and yang. The needles are placed along meridians, invisible energy channels described in ancient Chinese manuscripts as running the length of the body.
Building an Evidence Base: Clinical Research Progress
“Our goal is to build a house of evidence,” explains long-time NCCAM grantee Brian Berman, M.D., director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
To date, much of the progress in clinical research on acupuncture has come from an interdisciplinary approach that includes experts in acupuncture, clinical trial methodology, biostatistics, and relevant diseases such as osteoarthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.
“What we’ve learned so far is that the most promising area for using acupuncture is pain,” says Dr. Nahin. Clinical studies are showing acupuncture’s efficacy for some types of pain, such as back, osteoarthritis, and postoperative pain. For example, a systematic review supports the use of acupuncture for postoperative pain management. An NCCAM-supported Phase III clinical trial led by Dr. Berman showed that acupuncture relieved pain and improved function in patients with knee osteoarthritis when it was used with standard medical care, including anti-inflammatory medications and opioid pain relievers. In a large study published in 2009, researchers found that people suffering from chronic low-back pain who received acupuncture or simulated acupuncture treatments fared better than those receiving only conventional care. Pilot studies have looked at acupuncture in posttraumatic stress disorder and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. And, the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed 11 randomized trials and found that acupuncture may be a valuable option for patients suffering from tension headaches.
But these clinical outcomes may involve more than acupoints and needles. Other aspects of the acupuncture experience may play important roles in healing, including reassurance provided by the practitioner, expectation of benefit, and the sensory experience elicited by acupuncture needling, which has been called de qi and variously described as aching, dull pain, tingling, or a heaviness. In several recent studies researchers have carefully designed their studies to compare true acupuncture to simulated acupuncture and have tried to mimic the sensory experience of true acupuncture so that patients would be unaware of whether they were receiving true or simulated acupuncture. In some of these studies, such as the 2009 study on low-back pain, both simulated acupuncture and real acupuncture produced greater benefit than standard therapy.
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