After millennia working to balance yin and yang, acupuncture may be expanding its efficacy as a pain reliever in the 21st century.
For many Americans, acupuncture evokes the terrifying image of painful needles sticking out of various points in the body, but Dr. Tong Joo Gan, professor and vice chairman of anesthesiology at Duke University Medical Center, has tried to counter this idea and other Western misconceptions with a recent study examining the effects of acupuncture as a postoperative pain killer.
"Opioids such as morphine are still going to be the main method for controlling pain after surgery, but by using acupuncture you can reduce the amount of morphine that is required and reduce [its] side effects," he said.
Gan and his research team found that acupuncture can reduce the amount of morphine that patients use, as well as the pain they experience following surgery.
The study showed that acupuncture performed about 30 minutes before and during surgery can decrease patients' nausea by 50 percent, postoperative itchiness by 30 percent and dizziness by 60 percent.
In addition, Gan said acupuncture reduced urinary retention, which can cause discomfort for patients undergoing surgery, by 3.5 times.
He presented his findings at the American Society for Anesthesiology's annual meeting in San Francisco last week.
"I think that the public is much more aware of acupuncture [than the doctors]," Gan said. "If we increase the number of clinical trials [and] educate residents as well as young doctors, the practice will become more widespread and popular."
Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine and relies on several hundred points across the body that have no anatomical or histological basis. Gan said only between three and five acupuncture points need to be used in relieving postoperative pain.
Dr. Remy Coeytaux, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and cofounder of the Integrative Health Center of Chapel Hill, said public interest in the Chinese practice is growing. He added that he routinely performs acupuncture in his private practice.
Coeytaux said acupuncture is safer and more effective than most people realize, adding that electroacupuncture, the technique employed by Gan, is commonly used in modern medicine. In this practice, a small amount of electricity is transmitted into the skin.
"I think that people who need some help with nausea and pain are willing to try a lot of things," said Dr. Monica Myklebust, the medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, which is hosting a conference of the Society for Acupuncture Research next month.
It is not yet known exactly how acupuncture works, but Myklebust said chemicals that affect the nervous and hormone systems can change the way the mind interprets pain.
Although researchers have conducted many studies on acupuncture in the postoperative period, Gan said many of these studies have been retrospective, small and without a control group. He said the new study met conclusive criteria that took all of these factors into account.
Though many students said they were skeptical of the technique, freshman Madeline McCrary said she believes the study is valid since she has previously seen positive correlations between acupuncture and health.
"My grandmother started smoking when she was nine," she said. "She had been smoking for over 50 years, and then she got acupuncture once and never smoked again. So I definitely think acupuncture has some merit."
Other students were quick to criticize the practice, saying it lacks scientific credibility.
"It seems like a quack," freshman Pat Lang said. "A real doctor is someone who goes to medical school. Acupuncturists are quacks that want to make a quick buck."
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