Dear Savvy Senior,
Is acupuncture a proven treatment for arthritis pain? I have a lot of back and neck pain and am wondering if it's worth trying. What all can you tell me about acupuncture?
--Afraid of Needles
Many well-designed studies over the years - funded by the National Institutes of Health - have found acupuncture to be very effective in easing arthritis pain, and can help with a variety of other ailments too. Here's what you should know.
First used in China more than 2,000 years ago, acupuncture has become increasingly popular in the United States over the past 40 years.
While acupuncture isn't a cure-all treatment, it is a safe, drug-free option for relieving many different types of pain including osteoarthritis, low back pain, neck pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, postoperative pain, tennis elbow, carpel tunnel syndrome, dental pain, menstrual cramps and more. Studies have also shown that it can be helpful in treating asthma, depression, digestive disorders, addictions, menopause symptoms like hot flashes, and nausea caused by chemotherapy or anesthesia.
Exactly how or why acupuncture works is still not fully understood, but it's based on the traditional Eastern theory that vital energy flows through pathways in the body, and when any of these pathways get blocked, pain and illness result. Acupuncture unblocks the pathways to restore health.
However, today most U.S. medical doctors tend to believe that acupuncture works because it stimulates the nerves causing the release of endorphins, which are the body's natural painkiller hormones. It's also shown to increase blood circulation, decrease inflammation and stimulate the immune system.
What to Know
If the thought of getting needles stuck into your body makes you a little uneasy, you'll be happy to know that an acupuncture treatment is nothing like getting a shot. In fact, it's quite relaxing. Here are some additional points you should know:
The needles: They're solid, sterile and disposable (used only once), and as thin as a cat's whisker. The number of needles used for each treatment can vary anywhere from a few, up to a dozen or more. And where the needles are actually stuck depends on the condition being treated, but they are typically inserted about one-quarter to 1-inch deep, and are left in place for about 20 minutes. After placement, the needles are sometimes twirled or manipulated, or stimulated with electricity or heat.
Does it hurt? You may feel a brief, sharp sensation when the needle is inserted, but generally it's not painful. Once the needle is in place, however, you may feel a tingling sensation, numbness, mild pressure or warmth.
Treatments: How many treatments you'll need will depend on the severity of your condition - 12 treatments done weekly or biweekly is very common. It's also important to know that acupuncture can be used in conjunction with other conventional medical treatments, or by itself.
Cost and coverage: The cost per treatment typically runs anywhere from $50 to $100 or more. Unfortunately, many private health plans including Medicare, do not cover acupuncture.
To find an acupuncturist in your area ask your doctor for a referral, or you can do a search online at the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and acufinder.com. Both sites provide a national database of certified and/or licensed practitioners. Or visit the American Academy of Medical Acupuncturists, which offers a directory of MDs who are certified to practice acupuncture.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.