Acupuncture is an ancient practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) involving thin, flexible needles inserted at certain points along the body – typically called ‘meridians’. The idea being that the insertion of these needles at these predetermined points can help restore the optimal flow of energy – called ‘qi’ (pronounced: chee) – throughout the body. Proponents of acupuncture claim that it can be beneficial in many health conditions and the practice has slowly become more mainstream in western medicine.
But will it work for you and your specific health concerns? What if you are (deathly) afraid of needles? And how do you even go about choosing a reputable practitioner? Women’s Health turns to a Board Certified Acupuncturist for the answers to these questions and more.
Depression, Anxiety and Pain! Oh my!
Like any therapy, you’ll need to do your homework. A quick internet search will give you a lot of information about acupuncture, but you’ll need to be savvy to sort through the hype. According to Board Certified Acupuncturist, Anne Adametz, who practices in Madison, Wisconsin, where acupuncture really shines is in treating “pain that results from repetitive strain and stress”. Neck and shoulder pain, chronic headaches – these are the types of conditions where she has seen real results in her patients.
And the science backs her up. A 2014 review of literature in the Journal of the American Medical Assocation (JAMA) found that acupuncture did indeed show measurable benefits to pain sufferers when compared to placebo acupuncture or no acupuncture at all. The meta-analysis of the data encompassed roughly 30 studies of nearly 18,000 participants.
Adametz says she has also seen benefit to patients who seek acupuncture to deal with anxiety and depression. She explains, acupuncture is great for those who want to combat the stress response that can oftentimes lead to peripheral issues such as sleep disturbances, body tension, and being locked into the classic ‘fight, flee or freeze’ response of the sympathetic nervous system.
And, again, the literature corroborates her experiences. A 2013 systemic review of literature aimed to review the existing evidence on acupuncture therapy for women suffering from anxiety and depression, pointing out that women typically suffer from the conditions at twice the rate of their male counterparts. The review found that in the six reviewed studies there was ‘high level’ evidence to support acupuncture as a treatment modality.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic musculoskeletal condition characterized by high levels of fatigue, stiffness and diffuse unspecific pain. Fibromyalgia affects women disproportionally and can be debilitating. More than 5 million women currently suffer from the condition, which affects their quality of life, ability to work and family relationships. There is no known cure for fibromyalgia, though treatment options seek to optimize pain management, lessen fatigue and balance emotional fluctuations.
Acupuncture is currently recognized as a potential treatment modality for fibromyalgia sufferers. A 2006 randomized controlled trial aimed to test the hypothesis that acupuncture could be beneficial in treating fibromyalgia symptoms. The study found that the treatments were well-tolerated with “minimal adverse effects”. The study concluded that there was noticeable improvement in pain relief, but the biggest improvements were seen in regards to fatigue and anxiety.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is an umbrella diagnosis given to nearly 45 million Americans each year- 2/3 of whom are women – according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders.
Symptoms include a broad range of complaints such as bloating, gas, alternating constipation and diarrhea, urgency and changes in stool colors or consistencies. Many people experience these symptoms throughout their lives, but it is the frequency and duration of symptoms that helps doctors make an IBS diagnosis. And even then, an IBS diagnosis might not lead to straight answers. Changing your diet, lowering your stress and, yes, medications can be helpful for some. But for others, relief is hard to find. And the condition is not life-threatening, but it can and does contribute to a compromised quality of life for many Americans.
The good news for sufferers is that acupuncture has also seen some scientific success in the management of this condition. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials that took place between 1966 and 2013 concluded that “Acupuncture exhibits clinically and statistically significant control of IBS symptoms.”
Potential Help for Parkinsons
Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system which affects movement in sufferers. Progressively worsening tremors are the hallmark symptom of the disease, but fatigue, speech and gait dysfunction, difficulty swallowing and slowed movements are all common symptoms as well. There is no known cure for Parkinson’s. Treatment regimen typically involves medication to control symptoms, or more rarely surgical implantation of deep brain stimulators.
According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, Parkinson’s affects more than one million Americans, with 60,000 more being diagnosed each year.
Adametz excitedly relays her positive experiences with Parkinson’s patients in her own practice. “I’ve seen them go completely still.” She says in reference to her clients. “Little to no tremors for months after treatment. It’s unbelievable.”
Researchers in Arizona studied acupuncture’s effects on patients with Parkinson’s as well and their findings support Adametz’s experiences. The experimental group in this study received ‘electroacupuncture’ a practice in which a small electric current is passed between two acupuncture needles. The control group received ‘sham acupuncture’ – essentially fake acupuncture. Participants received one 30-minute treatment per week for a total of three weeks. During the study researchers took balance and gait measurements. At the end of the study, the researchers reported a 31% improvement in balance, 10% improvement in gait measurements and a 5% increase in stride length among those receiving the electroacupuncture. The control group experienced no improvement.
Don’t Fear the Needles
But what if you suffer from trypanophobia? You guessed it, trypanophobia is the fear of needles and injections. And as many as 10% of Americans suffer from it.
Adametz has some great advice if this situation applies to you. First she suggests you request your treatment face down, so you can’t see the needles. But she also points out that acupuncture needles are “10 times smaller” in diameter than the needles used to give injections. The needles are flexible and hair-like and Adametz says her own 8-year-old son handles the treatment well.
Another piece of advice? Adametz says to be clear about your concerns with the practitioner. They can coach you through breathing techniques that can help you relax. For example, take a deep breath in immediately prior to the needle being inserted and exhale as the needle goes in. Adametz says it’s highly likely you won’t feel a thing.
How to Pick A Practitioner
Adametz says that acupuncture takes “a long time to learn”. Practitioners spend years studying the techniques, everything from needle placement to insertion techniques.
Just like any health care provider, Adametz suggests that you choose a practitioner carefully. You’ll want to be comfortable in your sessions and it is worth taking the time to make sure you feel comfortable and understand your practitioner’s education, experience and philosophies.
She cautions people to avoid practitioners who offer ‘dry needling’. Dry needling is a technique often offered together with physical therapy and as a practice is relatively new in comparison to acupuncture. Dry needling techniques seek to elicit a twitch response in muscles and fascia as a means to eliminate ‘trigger points’ or knots of tension deep within muscle tissues.
Adametz suggests asking your potential practitioner about their educational experience – saying that those who have earned a Masters Degree in Acupuncture have completed between three to five years of experience and practical application. Some additional questions she suggests you ask as you do your research include where they went to school, how long they have been practicing and whether they are board certified.
Also important, Adametz says, is that you feel comfortable with your practitioner, so take the time to get a feel for their personality and ask questions that will help you determine if they will be a good fit for you.
Give it A Shot
Whether you are considering acupuncture for digestive issues, muscle pain, stress and anxiety or even for more serious conditions, there is quite a bit of science out there to support you as you make your decisions. Many insurance plans now offer acupuncture as a complimentary therapy, so ask your doctor if this treatment might be worth a try in your specific situation.
Taking the time to focus on your health by exploring complimentary therapies can be a great addition to your self-care regimen. Making the time and effort to attend to your own personal health journey can be an empowering move, and that is what we here at Women’s Health wish for everyone.
And if you have tried it, leave a comment – we’d love to hear your stories.