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Does acupuncture really work?

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A patient came into the clinic recently to inquire about acupuncture.

He asked if it really worked. I explained that acupuncture has been used by many cultures around the world for thousands of years to treat many disorders. I also told him about the medical research that is being carried out using acupuncture in America, China, Germany, France, Japan, Korea, Canada, Australia and other countries.

The fact that acupuncture can have a remarkably beneficial effect on many human and animal conditions has been objectively demonstrated.  Exactly how it works is not as clearly evident.

Some skeptics have attempted to dismiss the effects as placebo, theorizing that just because the patient expects to feel better, they do.

Although I am sure that a positive expectation improves the outcome of most treatments, the effectiveness of acupuncture on animals contradicts the placebo theory. Many veterinary clinics use acupuncture successfully.

A colleague of mine recently worked with researchers from Harvard and MIT in an innovative study that demonstrated acupuncture effects in the central nervous system. Subjects were placed in an advanced functional MRI (fMRI) scanner then treated with acupuncture. (The scan is a diagnostic system that produces color images of brain activity.) The fMRI scan illustrated the areas of the brain that responded to the needle insertions.

The scan illustrated that acupuncture stimulation had effects on the function of the deepest parts of the brain.  It affected the areas that impact interpretation of pain as well as areas that affect regulatory processes.

I have been studying acupuncture for over a decade. I have a wall full of texts, articles and research materials about acupuncture and related subjects.

While there are many theories that attempt to make sense of how acupuncture works in the body, in my opinion they all fall short.

There are descriptions of specific neurological effects observed during and after acupuncture, speculations of what mechanisms account for the results, and other explanations.  However none of the theories adequately explain some of the remarkable results that I have observed personally.

Many people associate acupuncture with China. The actual origin of acupuncture is obscured by elapsed time and the destruction of ancient records. There are many styles of acupuncture that are practiced in many cultures.   The way in which acupuncture procedures are used varies as well.

When I use acupuncture as a treatment option the painless insertions are so delicate the patient rarely even knows if the needles are in, unless they are watching.  The duration of insertion varies.

Because there are different styles of practice, there are different kinds of results.  Some patients see immediate results.  Others respond more gradually, sometimes seeing changes that occur over a period of days.

One of the most interesting aspects of acupuncture treatment is that often the specific needle insertions occur at locations on the body not even closely related anatomically to the painful area.

Acupuncture continues to be more widely accepted, even in top-tier medical clinics.  Iconic clinics such as Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Vanderbilt Integrated Medical Center have added acupuncture services to their offerings.

It is now clear to those that objectively research acupuncture that the stimulation results in very real physiological responses.

I have written columns about scientific aspects of acupuncture for national publications and have drawn on resources from around the world.  There are numerous studies underway to continue to develop a deeper knowledge of how acupuncture works within the body.

Most of the current research involves the effect of acupuncture stimulation on the function of the nervous system.  As new technologies emerge that can observe and interpret the actions of various neurological processes, new information about acupuncture’s positive effects will grow as well.

Interestingly, new findings about how the body’s intricate connective tissue network conducts neurological signals in ways never before imagined have substantiated some of the oldest concepts of acupuncture meridians.

In the words of one noted lecturer on the subject, “The connective tissue that we used to cut through in anatomy dissections to get to the interesting stuff has now become the interesting stuff.”  The new findings are making some of the ancient acupuncture theories look more plausible.
Read more from:
Acupuncture, Dr Mark Kestner, Health Care, Living Well, Voices
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