Western medicine doesn’t recognize the concepts of qi and meridians. However, scientific evidence suggests alternate explanations for why acupuncture might provide pain relief.
“There’s a lot of research that says when we put an acupuncture needle into the body, a number of physiological mechanisms occurs,” says Brian Berman, MD, professor of family and community medicine and director of the Centre for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
A well-placed needle sets off a cascade of events, Dr. Berman explains, producing a signal that travels along the spinal cord to the brain, triggering a release of neurotransmitters called endorphins and enkephalins, which scientists believe reduce the sensation of pain. Research also shows that inserting an acupuncture needle induces the production of cortisol, a hormone that helps control inflammation. Acupuncture may stimulate activity of other pain-relieving chemicals in the body as well.
But do all these biochemical changes relieve sore, stiff joints? A study by Dr. Berman and his colleagues found that after 26 weeks, patients receiving real acupuncture felt significantly less pain and functioned better (as measured by how far they could walk in six minutes) than their counterparts who received sham acupuncture.
“If I’m suffering chronic pain and someone offers me an intervention that will improve my symptoms, I’d be thinking, ‘Of course I want that,’” says Andrew L. Avins, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “If our ultimate goal is to help patients achieve their goals, the mechanism is not all that relevant.”
More than 40 million U.S. adults have symptoms of anxiety, which refers to excessive worrying that’s hard to control and often impacts daily life. It’s often treated with psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both.
Acupuncture, an ancient practice that involves inserting needles into pressure points on your body, is becoming a popular alternative treatment for anxiety. There’s some scientific evidence that acupuncture helps with certain symptoms of anxiety. However, researchers are still trying to determine the effect of acupuncture on specific types of anxiety, such as panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
There have been several studies done about the effects of acupuncture on anxiety. These studies have focused mostly on generalized anxiety disorder and suggest that acupuncture is helpful in treating general anxiety.
One promising study from 2015, for example, found that acupuncture improved symptoms in people with anxiety that didn’t respond to other treatments, including psychotherapy and medication. Participants received ten 30-minute sessions of acupuncture over the course of 12 weeks. They experienced a significant reduction in their anxiety, even 10 weeks after treatment.
In a more recent 2016 study on rats, acupuncture was found to be effective for reducing anxiety. The researchers suggested that it impacts how the body triggers the fight-or-flight response.
While we need to better understand how acupuncture affects anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias, research is showing promise for acupuncture as a viable and safe option. If you have anxiety that hasn’t responded to other treatment methods, or you’re simply interested in trying something new, acupuncture shouldn’t worsen your symptoms.
The bottom line
Acupuncture may be an effective low-risk treatment option for anxiety. More research is being done but there is promise and it shouldn’t make your symptoms worse.
Make sure you find a properly trained licensed acupuncturist in your state — they’ll be registered with APRAH and the Chinese Medicine Board. It’s also important to keep up with your other anxiety treatments, such as therapy or medication. You may also want to use other alternative treatments, including relaxation, exercises, and meditation to reduce stress and improve your overall well-being, during this Covid 19 – period.
Manyanga, T., Froese, M., Zarychanski, R. et al. Pain management with acupuncture in osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Altern Med 14, 312 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-14-312
Wu MS, Chen KH, Chen IF, Huang SK, Tzeng PC, Yeh ML, Lee FP, Lin JG, Chen C. The Efficacy of Acupuncture in Post-Operative Pain Management: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS One. 2016 Mar 9;11(3):e0150367. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150367. PMID: 26959661; PMCID: PMC4784927.
Sniezek DP, Siddiqui IJ. Acupuncture for Treating Anxiety and Depression in Women: A Clinical Systematic Review
Acupuncture for Treating Anxiety and Depression in Women: A Clinical Systematic Review. (2013). https://doi.org/10.1089/acu.2012.0900
Pilkington K, Kirkwood G, Rampes H, Cummings M, Richardson J. Acupuncture for anxiety and anxiety disorders–a systematic literature review. Acupunct Med. 2007 Jun;25(1-2):1-10. doi: 10.1136/aim.25.1-2.1. PMID: 17641561.
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