Should I Consider Acupuncture?

Clues to the nature of an ancient discipline
By Mary Ann Petersen, LAc, MAcOM

Traditional Chinese medicine, which includes acupuncture, is the longest continuously practiced form of medicine in history. Acupuncture treated headaches 3,000 years ago, and acupuncture treats headaches today. The New York Times published an article citing research from 2007 showing acupuncture provided more effective relief for chronic headaches than medication. The research included reviews of several studies. Any form of medicine or healthcare with this much history, longevity, and benefit seems worthy of consideration.

Maximizing benefits and the value of integration: Mayo Clinic

Why suggest acupuncture to patients?

Tony Y. Chon, MD, is an internist and an acupuncturist for Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He says that he easily moves back and forth between both worlds. “I can wear my allopathic hat and see from that perspective; I can wear my acupuncturist hat and see from that perspective.” He encourages integration. He says he rarely excludes one form of care for another, but rather suggests a combination. He tells patients, “We can combine the best of both worlds to maximize benefits.”

Mayo Clinic started offering acupuncture as a regular dedicated service about seven years ago. Chon said this was a transformational time. In the beginning, they were worried that they would not have enough patients referred to acupuncture by the medical staff. Chon explained that 10 years ago, “not many providers even talked about acupuncture. Now they are talking about it and referring.” Today, the main concern is how to fit in all of the patients referred to acupuncture. The clinic has three full-time acupuncturists.

The next phase at Mayo Clinic is to incorporate acupuncture care as an inpatient service, meaning patients in the hospital could get treatment. For example, a hospitalist could request acupuncture for pain management, or a surgeon could request acupuncture for post-operative pain or nausea. Chon said that they plan to study if adding inpatient acupuncture can shorten the average hospital stay. “If we can reduce a five-day stay to four days, that could potentially save a lot of money.”

What about stress, mental health, and addiction?

“If the only reason you use acupuncture is to help reduce stress, that is very important, as stress affects everything,” said Doug Beal, a nurse practitioner and licensed acupuncturist on the medical staff of Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, Oregon. “Often the reason for using acupuncture revolves around problems that don’t resolve, or resist conventional medicine,” said Beal.

Kaiser has long-established guidelines for the treatment of chronic pain with acupuncture.

Beal explained, “Acupuncture is very safe. Complications and risks are very rare.”

He offers group treatment for patients with addiction. The goal is to alleviate withdrawal discomfort, decrease cravings, and reduce stress. For mental health patients, acupuncture is used to calm the mind, and reduce anxiety and stress.

“Any patient who is really interested in taking charge of his or her health should consider trying acupuncture,” said Beal. “It can also help patients deal with side effects of medications.” A combination of drug therapy and acupuncture can produce positive results with fewer side effects. For example, some patients may suffer side effects from Prozac. If they add acupuncture treatments, they may be able to step down to a smaller dose of Prozac. Beal said that this combined approach has been shown to be successful in recent research studies.

Beal has received positive feedback from his colleagues. For example, some patients seem more open and communicative following their acupuncture treatment.

Improving quality of life

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York has an integrative medicine department that includes acupuncture. They currently have four acupuncturists on staff.

Gary Deng, MD, attending physician for the integrative medicine department, explained that acupuncture is used to reduce symptoms experienced by cancer patients. Patients might consider acupuncture to reduce nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, hot flashes from hormonal therapy, and dry mouth from radiation therapy.

The integrative department offers several therapies for supportive care. They say that, when used in concert with medical treatment, they can alleviate stress; reduce pain, anxiety, and other physical and emotional symptoms; and enhance quality of life.

Wounded warriors

Christopher Spevak, MD, is a physician at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where acupuncture is used for treating veterans. “We consider acupuncture for patients for a variety of causes. They mainly deal with pain, but also with mood disorders and sleep, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Walter Reed Bethesda incorporates acupuncture in both the outpatient clinics and inpatient services through the Wounded Warrior Pain Care Initiative.”

Why did you consider acupuncture?

Lynda Whitener considered acupuncture because of headaches. She was hoping to find relief without “introducing more medications into my body.” She was curious about acupuncture, but concerned about trying something new, “especially something my overly logical brain did not really understand.” Since she started acupuncture, she reports that her stress, anxiety, and headaches have greatly diminished. “I have lost over 40 pounds due to no longer feeling the need to ‘stress eat,’ reduced my anxiety medication to a much more comfortable level, and truly just feel better in my body.” She commits to a regular schedule of acupuncture as a maintenance program.

“If you are looking for a nontoxic, safe, and supportive alternative to Western medical treatment, acupuncture may be for you,” said Whitener.

Lloyd Harper first tried acupuncture at 75 years old but wishes he had done it sooner. Three years after having a hip replacement on his right side, he started having intense pain in his left knee and hip. Walking one block became impossible. He did not want to have another surgery, but he also did not want to try acupuncture. “I was not a believer,” he said. “I was dragged to an acupuncturist by my sister-in-law.” He felt better after the first treatment and continued on with eight treatments total. “I feel great. I can walk. I can work. I don’t wait for people to ask me if they should try acupuncture, I just tell ‘em. It’s my testimony,” said Harper. He continues to stay active, working on his land in Eastern Oregon.

Treatment plans

What is a standard course of treatment? How many acupuncture treatments do I need?

Think about most healthcare treatments. How many doses of medication do you need to feel better? How many counseling appointments until you have solved your dilemma? How many physical therapy appointments does it take to see improvement? How many surgeries are required to produce a satisfactory outcome?

The frequency and duration of acupuncture treatments depend on what is being treated. Ask your acupuncturist about the recommended amount of treatments for your condition.

Should you consider acupuncture? Sure. It seems worth considering.


Mary Ann Petersen, LAc, MAcOM, practices acupuncture at Good Medicine in Eugene, Oregon.