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Alternative Medicine: Does the Research Support the Movement? Part 1: Acupuncture
Alternative medical practices seem to be gaining speed as they maneuver into our collective health consciousness, but it is often hard for the public to know what to make of them. More major medical centers are offering non-conventional therapies to their patients. But many people may still be wondering, how effective are they?
The confusion about alternative practices is understandable. From acupuncture to yoga, there are a wide variety of methods available and the medical conditions that drive people to seek alternative medical practices are equally varied.
In addition, research into how these practices actually work on our bodies physiologically is still in its infancy – and the findings we do have are not always conclusive.
When is Medicine Alternative, Integrative, Complementary?
Alternative medicine means that alternative, Eastern, or non-conventional practices are used in place of Western or allopathic medicine. Complementary medicine uses both alternative and conventional practices in tandem. Integrative medicine is similar to complementary medicine, with the caveat that only techniques with solid empirical evidence are used in conjunction with conventional methods.
The NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), favors the term “CAM,” which includes both complementary and alternative medicine.(1) There are four main divisions of CAM: Mind-Body medicine, including acupuncture, meditation, and yoga; Natural Products, which includes herbs and nutritional supplements; Manipulative and Body-Based Practices like massage and spinal manipulation; and “Other Practices” like Reiki, magnet therapy, and Ayurvedic medicine.
People turn to CAM for a variety of reasons. Some may be eager to try alternative techniques either because conventional medicine has not worked for a specific condition, or because they wish to avoid medication. Some simply use alternative methods in hopes of improving health and staving off disease.
But whatever your reason for considering complementary and alternative medicine, you want to be somewhat skeptical, both because you should be interested in knowing what has been proven to work and because you need to know what is safe.
Looking at the hard, scientific evidence may reduce the concerns people have about the safety and effectiveness of particular methods, though research on many of the methods discussed below is ongoing. In this series, we’ll focus on the better-studied and more familiar techniques that make up Mind-Body medicine. In this first segment, we look at acupuncture. Two subsequent segments will consider meditation, and yoga. We’ll go over the more promising data on each of these methods, pointing out the places where the research does and does not seem to support the claims. While some of the practices are still poorly understood, there are cases in which they do seem to have some real value – so giving them a try under certain circumstances (and an expert’s supervision) won’t hurt, and might actually help.
This ancient practice is one of the most popular, but one of the most elusive. Dating back 5,000 years, acupuncture is still an important part of medical practice in China where it originated, and in the West, which has adopted it. Surveys have shown, for example that in 2007, approximately 3.1 million Americans had acupuncture in the previous year – this number had tripled from 1997.(1)
According to the director of NCCAM, Josephine M. Briggs, MD, the most promising applications of acupuncture are in pain management, and much research has been devoted to understanding if and when it is effective. Because pain is both physical and mental, it is an excellent candidate to address with mind-body practice.