Globalization has huge benefits when it comes to modern medical science.
The process has begun to interweave various scientific beliefs and ideas into a cohesive tapestry inclusive of all cultures and traditions. While globalization has a lot of work to do to complete this weave, the work to bridge the gap between Western medicine and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is already paying off.
Contrary to popular belief, complementary medicine and alternative medicine are not synonymous. While both refer to treatments that lie outside of “mainstream” or “Western” medicine (e.g., acupuncture, Ayurveda, energy therapy, etc.), these treatments are considered “complementary” when used along with traditional Western medicine, and “alternative” when they replace traditional Western medicine.
In recent decades, clinicians specializing in Western medicine have realized the limitations of the traditional approach and are increasingly turning to alternative or complementary medicine for assistance.
Patients are following suit: Because the prevalence of chronic diseases such as dementia and diabetes increases with age, more and more older adults are turning to CAM therapies to either complement or replace their current medical regimen. Not only do CAM treatment modalities have minimal side effects, but their benefits are also proven—especially that of acupuncture.
The healing power of acupuncture
Don’t let the needles scare you off! Acupuncture actually has many evidence-based benefits for seniors. According to John Hopkins Medicine, research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that acupuncture may be an effective treatment alone or in combination with conventional therapies to treat the following:
- Nausea caused by surgical anesthesia and cancer chemotherapy
- Dental pain after surgery
- Menstrual cramps
- Tennis elbow
- Myofascial pain
- Low back pain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
The same research finds that additional conditions may benefit from acupuncture. People using acupuncture to treat general conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, headaches and prostatitis have shown statistically significant improvement in symptom reduction.
Acupuncture has also been found effective for acute conditions, such as cold symptoms, sore throat and bronchitis, as well as for emotional disturbances such as anxiety, insomnia, neurosis—even depression.
But…they use needles!
Yes, but acupuncture needles are much different than typical needles used in medical environments. An acupuncture needle is no thicker than a human strand of hair; most people can’t even feel when the needle is inserted. Others just feel a light tug sensation at the insertion point of the needle. Also, an acupuncture needle is solid (as opposed to hollow IV needles), allowing it to be so thin it doesn’t actually penetrate the skin. And an acupuncture needle is only inserted ¼- to ½-inch deep and is inserted perpendicular to the skin’s surface, as opposed to at an angle like an IV needle.
Fear of needles is indeed a common barrier to acupuncture. However, as Prajna Paramita Choudhury, LAc, DiplOM, a licensed and certified acupuncturist, told Healthline, “Most [people being treated] don’t feel anything. Most of the time what might be described as pain is a chi sensation. It can be heavy, throbbing or jumping, all of which are positive responses.”
So, if you’re like the majority of the human race and needles make you wish you were elsewhere, keep in mind that acupuncture is not about the needle per se—it’s about the stimulation the needle creates.
How does acupuncture work?
The Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective
In traditional Chinese medicine, Qi (pronounced “chee”) is the energy of life: Without it we cannot live, and if disrupted, our bodies cannot function properly.
Taz Bhatia, MD, founder of CentreSpring MD and author of “Super Woman Rx,” explains: “In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi is the energy current that runs through our bodies, providing us with circulation, nutrients and minerals that we need to be whole.”
Qi travels through the body through meridians, which are channels that run throughout the body. Think of Qi as oxygen and meridians like blood vessels; meridians deliver vital Qi to organs and throughout the body.
Levels of Qi can be either in balance or out of balance. When Qi is in balance, the body functions optimally. However, disease, illness and disorder occur if Qi is out of balance. Practitioners believe acupuncture is one key way to balance Qi.
Each meridian is related to different organs, and each acupuncture point has a specific action on that organ. An acupuncturist will place the needles in certain places (i.e., acupuncture points), which lie along a meridian line to create a targeted stimulus that then impacts the organ(s) connected to that particular meridian.
For example, inserting a needle into an acupuncture point along the liver meridian (displayed here) will create a stimulus that affects the liver and lungs in a therapeutic way.
The Western medicine perspective
Western medical scientists believe that stimulating acupuncture points affects the central nervous system, creating a cascade of chemicals released into the muscles, spinal cord and brain. This jump-starts the body’s natural healing processes to promote physical and emotional well-being.
How are acupuncturists trained?
With 361 acupuncture points located throughout the body, acupuncturists must be highly trained in their line of work. In fact, their training is similar to that of a medical doctor.
A bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for entry into an acupuncturist school. Following that, an acupuncture certification program is similar in length to that of medical school; the individual must complete at least three years of an accredited acupuncture school in order to practice. They must also undergo extensive clinical training and internships during this time.
How do acupuncturists know where to put the needle?
Contrary to popular belief, you will not be treated as a human pincushion if you visit a properly trained and certified acupuncturist. Acupuncture is an incredibly honed skill. In general, three things guide acupuncturists to know where to place their needles for therapeutic results:
- Recognition of your pattern of symptoms
- Knowledge of the therapeutic acupuncture points related to your pattern of symptoms
- Understanding of the proper stimulus type for each acupuncture point
Common questions about acupuncture and older adults
Q: How should I choose an acupuncturist?
When choosing an acupuncturist, the Mayo Clinic recommends going through the same process you would to find a medical doctor:
- Ask people you trust for recommendations.
- Check the training and credentials of all candidates; ensure they’re certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
- Interview several acupuncture practitioners. Examples of questions to ask are:
- What can affect my Qi?
- What should I expect during treatment?
- How should I prepare?
- Do the needles hurt?
- How deep do they go?
- How will you keep me safe during my acupuncture session?
Q: Does insurance cover acupuncture?
Most big insurance carriers cover acupuncture to some degree, including:
- Banner Health
- Blue Cross Blue Shield
- Health Net
- United Healthcare
Several government-run insurance programs also added acupuncture to their list of covered benefits. This includes:
- Medicare: Medicare Part B will cover acupuncture for low back pain. If you show improvement after a set period of time, regular Medicare will continue coverage. Full details.
- Veterans Administration: The VA covers acupuncture, preferably if it is provided in a VAMC facility by licensed acupuncturists, medical acupuncturists and chiropractic acupuncturists. Also, if properly certified, RNs, PTs and pharmacists can provide Battlefield Acupuncture (BFA), which is an auricular (ear) acupuncture protocol targeted strictly for acute or chronic pain. If acupuncture is provided outside of a VAMC, the acupuncture Standardized Episodes of Care (SEOC) are used to inform treatment frequency and duration in relation to coverage. Full details.
In addition, federal employees now receive acupuncture benefits under their medical insurance.
Q: Are there side effects?
The risks of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner using sterile needles. And the FDA requires that needles be sterile, nontoxic and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.
You may experience one or more minor side effects like soreness and light bleeding or bruising where the needles are inserted.
Q: I have a bleeding disorder. Is it safe for me to get acupuncture?
The short answer is no. Not everyone is a good candidate for acupuncture. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, you may be at risk of complications if you:
- Have a bleeding disorder such as hemophilia
- Use blood thinners
- Have a pacemaker
Other contraindicated conditions are:
- Drug or alcohol intoxication
- A seizure disorder
- Infectious skin disorder or disease
Acupuncture is a restful way to ease pain and improve well-being when used alone or in combination with other therapies. Check out this helpful visual guide to acupuncture from WebMD.
Remember, acupuncture isn’t for everyone. Discuss acupuncture with your doctor first; then find a practitioner who is licensed with proper training and credentials.