What if there were a scientifically proven method of relief for chronic pain that didn’t include daily medications, visits to the doctor, or major lifestyle changes? Would you try it?

Incredibly, recent scientific studies and meta-analyses have revealed that such a treatment for chronic pain does exist—and it has existed for thousands of years. The treatment? Acupuncture.

What Acupuncture Studies Have Found

People around the world have used acupuncture to treat various ailments for centuries, and the practice has increased in popularity in recent years. In 2012, over 14 million people in the United States alone reported having tried acupuncture.

Despite the growing number of acupuncture adherents, there has been little scientific evidence to prove its effectiveness until very recently. Within the last decade, several acupuncture studies have pointed to its efficacy and use in treating various types of chronic pain, including lower back pain, migraines, tension headaches, osteoarthritis, and menstrual pain.

Though single scientific studies like these are promising, they also often face various reliability concerns, such as small sample sizes, biased study design, and lack of repeated results.

That’s why JAMA’s meta-analysis, Acupuncture for Chronic Pain, is especially exciting for chronic pain sufferers. A meta-analysis examines many similar but independent research studies to determine whether a particular result is repeated and therefore expected. JAMA’s meta-analysis analyzed 29 high-quality research studies on the use of acupuncture for treating various types of chronic pain. With a total sample size of over 17,000 individual patients, the meta-analysis found that acupuncture did relieve pain at a statistically significant rate.

But the JAMA results are even more exciting because they reveal that acupuncture’s benefits go beyond just the placebo effect, as many people have argued in the past. The results show that patients who received real acupuncture experienced more pain relief than those who received a fake acupuncture treatment and those who received no treatment at all.

How Acupuncture Works

Acupuncture was introduced in China nearly 2,500 years ago as a way to balance the body’s inner energy forces, called qi. During an acupuncture session, the acupuncturist carefully places incredibly thin, sterilized needles into specific points throughout the body. The needles usually stay in place between 10 and 20 minutes.

Sometimes the needle is placed on or near a painful spot on the body, while other times the needle is placed on an area seemingly unrelated to the patient’s particular health concern. Acupuncturists study both traditional and biological theories to help determine the best needle placement for each patient.

Even though acupuncture has been proven effective, medical experts are still not certain exactly how the process works to relieve pain. Some research indicates that acupuncture needles stimulate the release of opiod peptides, which provide a painkilling effect. Other research suggests that acupuncture needles trigger the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which in turn affect the body’s overall blood flow and hormone levels.

Though science is still working to determine the root cause of acupuncture’s effectiveness, it is clear that acupuncture is moving out of the alternative medicine sphere and into mainstream treatment for chronic pain. Pain specialist Dr. Lucy Chen explains that “the benefit of acupuncture is clear, and the complications and potential adverse effects of acupuncture are low compared with medication.”

So what should you know before you try acupuncture for chronic pain relief?

Tips for Trying Acupuncture

To those who have never tried it, all those tiny needles of acupuncture might seem a little scary. If you’re nervous about trying acupuncture, you aren’t alone! Just keep these five tips in mind for a safe and healthy acupuncture experience.

1. Consult with your primary doctor first.

Before seeking any treatment, make an appointment with your regular doctor to explain your symptoms and desire to try acupuncture. The doctor can help rule out any serious medical condition that might require surgical or medicinal treatment.

2. Find a reputable acupuncturist.

Acupuncture is a pain-free treatment when performed by a knowledgeable and professional acupuncturist. To be sure that your acupuncturist is properly trained and licensed, look him or her up on the website of the National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

3. Do some research.

If you’re feeling nervous about your acupuncture session, do some research online so you know what to expect before you go to your first appointment. Be sure to use respected medical information sites like the Mayo Clinic for the most accurate information. If you have any concerns, just give a quick call to your acupuncturist; he or she has seen all kinds of patients before and can help ease your anxiety.

4. Check with your health insurance provider.

To save money on your acupuncture treatment, contact your health insurance provider to determine whether acupuncture is covered. The provider may even have a list of recommended or in-network acupuncturists.

5. Relax, and keep an open mind.

Once you’ve found a reputable acupuncturist and done your research about the process, you’ve done everything you can to set yourself up for success. Keep an open mind as you experience the acupuncture treatments. If you’re nervous, that’s okay too. As David S. Kiefer, MD, notes, “even people who are not very open-minded and try [acupuncture], find they feel good during the treatments.”

Featured photo credit: hjochen via shutterstock.com

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