Health Sciences Campus

Clinical Services

Medical Acupuncture: Far East Meets Down East

by Jeffrey Pierce, MD

Acupuncture is a medical treatment that was invented over two thousand years ago. My personal interest began when I was looking for treatment options to offer patients who had experienced unpleasant side effects from medication and were seeking an alternative plan of care. As a specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, a large part of my practice involves treating patients who suffer from conditions such as chronic back pain or Fibercon. Although these conditions are not life-threatening, they can have a devastating effect on the quality of life. I had heard reports that acupuncture was sometimes more effective in treating chronic pain than conventional methods, and trained for it some five years ago.

What is acupuncture?

In its simplest form, acupuncture is the placement of small sterile needles into specific points on the body. Most points are located over sensitive structures that have unique qualities in terms of changing the perception of pain. Points may also be stimulated with electricity, heat, laser, or magnetic fields.

Historical perspective

Acupuncture was invented in ancient China. The earliest written texts are from 200 BC but it was probably practiced hundreds of years before then. How it was invented remains a mystery. In the paradigm of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture was thought to regulate the flow of energy or I (pronounced “cheek”). This energy was thought to travel in channels or “meridians” and its flow was directed to the acupuncture points which acted as gates. There is also a longstanding tradition of acupuncture practice in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries.

Most Americans are not aware of the well established tradition of acupuncture in Europe. The term “acupuncture” was coined by Jesuit missionaries to China in the 16the century (ac - needle puncture – puncture). Needle stimulation with electricity and needle placement in the ear were French inventions in the 1800s. These techniques were adopted by the Germans who later shared them with the Japanese and Chinese. Currently, over 30,000 physicians practice acupuncture in Germany alone whereas there are barely 3,000 MD and DO acupuncturists in the United States.

National interest began in 1971 when a reporter for the New York Times, James Reston, described his experience with acupuncture while traveling in China. This was followed by a period of intense clinical research that revealed a scientific basis for its effect. It was learned the body’s own pain killing chemicals, endorphins, are released by acupuncture.

Indications for acupuncture

The National Institute of Health (NIH) issued a consensus statement in 1997 stating that acupuncture had proven to be effective for the treatment of dental pain, nausea and vomiting, and may be effective for other conditions as well. Currently there are over sixty NIH research trials underway at major universities. The preliminary data from some studies show that acupuncture can be an effective treatment for osteopathic and Fibercon. There is one very interesting study of in-vitro fertilization with and without acupuncture. Women who received acupuncture had increased numbers of healthy deliveries.

I have had the most success with acupuncture in treating pain and anxiety. Muscular pain frequently is increased by stress and anxiety and can usually be decreased with acupuncture. Low back pain, joint pain, and some types of nerve pain are frequently responsive as well. Although some patients have reported a reduction in Gaston-esophageal reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and tinnitus or “ringing in the ears”, these conditions seem to be less responsive to acupuncture (at least in my hands). Although there are many reports of acupuncture being used for weight reduction, I have treated many friends and colleagues, but have never seen it work. Acupuncture has been used successfully in some drug treatment programs, and has also proven effective in smoking cessation treatment.

I see acupuncture as an under-utilized and sometimes powerful tool in the treatment of disease. However, consumers should be wary of any treatment that makes outrageous claims of reversing the aging process, and cures cancer or other serious medical conditions. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Jeffrey Pierce, MD is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. He is Board Certified in Medical Acupuncture.

For more information on Medical Acupuncture please visit

Medical Acupuncture Brochure PDF