Acupuncture Helps Patients Overcome Pain, Anxiety
By Doug Boyd
When her patients need pain relief or help overcoming anxiety, Dr. Janice Daugherty offers to share a pointer or two.
Daugherty, an associate professor of family medicine, is also a medical acupuncturist. With her tiny needles, she’s helped patients overcome joint pain, headaches and other maladies.
At a recent lecture on acupuncture at the Brody Medical Sciences Building, Daugherty noted the language doctors often use: they have “weapons” against disease, they help patients “battle” or “fight” their illness. They prescribe antibacterial, antidepressant and other “anti-” medicines.
“We’re the ‘anti’ doctors,” she said, adding she felt that all these weapons and “antis” still left her doctor bag missing something.
“I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I need to look for a different bag,’” she said.
Her search led her to the University of California-Los Angeles. She completed a 300-hour course offered by UCLA and the Helms Medical Institute and is working toward board certification in acupuncture.
Acupuncture is a technique of inserting and manipulating needles into “acupuncture points” on the body. According to acupunctural teachings, this process will restore health and well-being and is particularly good at treating pain. The World Health Organization has standardized the definition and characterization of these points. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health said acupuncture is effective.
Acupuncture is thought to have originated in China and is most commonly associated with traditional Chinese medicine. Different types of acupuncture, such as Japanese and Korean, are practiced and taught throughout the world.
The American Board of Medicine Acupuncture certifies physicians as medical acupuncturists. Dr. Jeffrey Pierce, an associate clinical professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at ECU, completed the Helms/UCLA course in 2002 and gained his board certification in acupuncture in 2005. Some dentists also practice acupuncture.
“In my experience, acupuncture is very useful in treating acute and chronic pain,” Pierce said. “It can be especially useful if there are components of stress and anxiety. I have had good luck treating nasal congestion and chronic sinusitis and gastro-esophageal reflux.
“Some people respond to the treatments better than others, and it doesn’t always seem to be those that are ‘expecting’ it to work,” Pierce said.
“Some of the most gratifying responses are in patients who didn’t expect it to work and who tried it as a last resort.”
The needles – classified as medical devices by the Food and Drug Administration – are tiny and laser-sharpened. They are so slim they spread tissue rather than cutting, thus producing little if any blood. Treatments can last 12 to 45 minutes and require fewer than six or more than 60 needles, Daugherty said.
Once they insert the needles in precise spots along invisible channels known as “meridians,” acupuncturists manipulate the needles by twisting or bending them. They can also apply electricity or heat to the needles for added therapy.
“The best scientific explanation is that acupuncture stimulates changes in protein synthesis,” Pierce said. According to the NIH, studies suggest acupuncture produces its effects through regulating the nervous system and aiding the work of pain-killing biochemicals such as endorphins and immune system cells at specific sites in the body.
In addition, studies have shown acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones.
That could affect the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes that regulate blood pressure, blood flow and body temperature.
The ancient Chinese and Japanese paradigms are that acupuncture regulates the flow of an invisible life energy termed “chi” or “ki.”
Acupuncture can also help relieve anxiety. Once, before an important exam, Daugherty inserted and manipulated needles in her foot that were along the spleen channel or “smart meridian.”
“I don’t know if it worked or not, but it’s the best score I ever made,” Daugherty said of the subsequent test.
Daugherty has treated Tammy Jones, who works in the Department of Family Medicine, for low-back pain. Jones calls the results “amazing.”
“It’s funny, because I’m terrified of needles, and these don’t bother me at all,” Jones said. “I can’t even feel them.”
Pierce said many insurers do not cover acupuncture treatments. The National Institutes of Health are conducting more than 60 clinical trials on acupuncture, and some have been promising for the treatment of pain, especially osteoarthritis.