The ancient practice of acupuncture can help ease pain

massage-womenNot many of us are “needle people.” When it’s time to give blood or get a flu shot, we need to go to our happy place to get through that little poke. But if you’re a chronic pain sufferer, needles (albeit tiny ones) are perhaps exactly what you should seek out to find relief.

The practice of acupuncture has been a part of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and is slowly but surely gaining ground in the U.S. as a trusted alternative treatment for chronic pain, among some 28 other conditions, according to the World Health Organization. In a 2007 survey by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, it was found that some 3.1 million Americans had used acupuncture within the last year.

If you’re nervous to try acupuncture, know that it is virtually painless. An acupuncturist will tap hair-thin, stainless steel needles into a patient’s skin at specific points on the body and at different depths. Once inserted, the needles will stay in the skin for several minutes to an hour, and may be twirled, energized electrically or warmed to intensify the effect of the treatment. During subsequent treatments, the acupuncturist will vary the position and placement of the needles to stimulate new areas of the body.

The placement of these needles is thought to correct imbalances in the flow of energy in the body. The therapy is also thought to increase the release of endorphins, those morphine-like chemicals that block pain in the body.

Lucy Chen, MD, board-certified anesthesiologist and practicing acupuncturist, told the Harvard Health Blog in 2013, “I think the benefit of acupuncture is clear, and the complications and potential adverse effects of acupuncture are low compared with medication.” Chen says individuals first consult their doctor about any new pain, to rule out serious medical conditions, before trying acupuncture.

Acupuncture can help with myriad types of pain including arthritis, low back pain, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines and osteoarthritis. According to the American College of Physicians, acupuncture is one of several alternative medical therapies that physicians should consider for patients with chronic low back pain when they do not respond to conventional treatments. Some studies show that combining acupuncture with conventional treatment options was more effective in relieving pain than conventional treatment alone.

One visit alone won’t often relieve your chronic pain, so expect weekly acupuncture treatments until you start to feel the effects. And, note that this therapy is not usually covered by insurance, so plan on spending anywhere from $65 to $125 per session. Always do your research to find a certified acupuncturist. You can visit The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at nccaom.org to find a practitioner.

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