IT ONLY TOOK 2,000 YEARS, but Eastern and Western medicine finally agree on something: the effectiveness of acupuncture, the healing art in which hair-thin needles are inserted along pathways called meridians to clear qi, or energy, that gets blocked due to illness and imbalance. Scientists have yet to explain the success of the therapy in Western terms, but they theorize that it stimulates the production of immune-system cells and painkilling endorphins; studies also indicate that acupuncture alters the release pattern of brain chemicals like neurotransmitters and neurohormones, which affects the central nervous system.
Much clinical attention has been paid to acupuncture. The medical website PubMed (www.pubmed.gov) lists more than 10,000 published investigations, and the National Institutes of Health currently sponsor about 50 trials in the recruitment stage that will examine acupuncture in the treatment of hypertension, osteoarthritis, chronic pain, depression, and other conditions. And even though researchers struggle to find a consistently reliable placebo, study results so far have been particularly encouraging in treating the following conditions.
Fibromyalgia: A report in Mayo Clinic Proceedings indicated that a relatively brief course in acupuncture significantly reduced common complaints related to fibromyalgia--particularly fatigue, anxiety, and chronic pain. The 50 subjects received six treatments over a three-week period; however, they continued to report improved symptoms compared with the control group after one month and seven months later, respectively. "Acupuncture needles may trigger the patient's nervous system to respond in ways that improve the underlying hypersensitivity that causes fibromyalgia symptoms," says lead researcher David Martin, M.D., Ph.D.
Migraines and headaches: While some research on acupuncture and headaches has had so-so results, a study in the British Medical Journal found that episodes could be cut by nearly 50 percent. About 270 people who suffered episodic or chronic tension headaches were recruited. Half received acupuncture and standard medication; the other, just medication. The acupuncture group, after 12 treatments of 30 minutes each over a three-month period, reported nearly two fewer days of headaches per month compared with the medication group. The acupuncture treatments also continued to work for up to nine months after the study.
Acupuncture image via Shutterstock