—In another indication of the growing acceptance of alternative medical
approaches, a federal advisory panel Wednesday strongly endorsed the
ancient Chinese medical practice of acupuncture for treating certain
conditions, including nausea and postoperative dental pain.
The panel also noted that the
2,500-year-old discipline appears to be effective in relieving other
common disorders, such as menstrual cramps, headaches, low back pain,
muscle pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, stroke side effects and asthma.
But it cautioned that more research is needed before reaching final
conclusions about its impact on these ailments.
"It's time to take it [acupuncture]
seriously," said the panel's chairman, Dr. David J. Ramsey of the
University of Maryland. "There are a number of situations where it
really does, in fact, work—the evidence is very clear-cut. It has few
side effects, and is less invasive than many other things we do."
While acupuncture itself is ancient,
its introduction into Western medical practice is a relatively recent
phenomenon. Few Americans were even aware of the discipline until after
the United States established normal relations with China in the 1970s.
Even as public and professional interest grew, the paucity of research
data made it difficult for the medical establishment to evaluate its
The advisory committee was convened
by the National Institutes of Health, which several years ago
established a special office to study and fund research into
alternative medical approaches. The conclusions of such panels, while
not binding, are widely disseminated among health professionals and
typically wield considerable influence.
Millions of Americans already use
acupuncture, a component of traditional Chinese medicine that involves
the use of hair-thin metallic needles inserted under the skin to
stimulate specific points in the body. Sometimes it is combined with
moxibustion, the use of a special compressed powdered substance known
as moxa, which is burned at or near the point to be stimulated.
The theory behind acupuncture is that
the body is made up of channels of energy flow, known as Qi, and that
blockages of this energy flow result in pain and disease.
Acupuncturists believe that stimulating these specific acupuncture
points unblocks the channels and restores the body's balance, thus
relieving pain and other symptoms.
Panel members said there is no
evidence that confirms this theory. But research does support the idea
that acupuncture stimulates the production of the body's own natural
painkilling chemicals, which could explain its success, they said.
The panel's report noted that Western
acceptance of any new or unfamiliar treatment can be difficult. But it
urged health professionals to consider acupuncture, particularly the
idea of integrating its use with conventional medicine after a thorough
This approach could, for example,
enable physicians to reduce the amount of pain medication or anesthesia
that consumers otherwise would require.
"If I had chronic pain and was being
treated with [drugs], I would try acupuncture — why not?" said Dr.
Leonard Wisneski, a panel member who is medical director of American
WholeHealth in Bethesda, Md., which combines conventional and
Dr. Bradley Williams, president of
the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, an organization of
physicians, said he was pleased that the panel's conclusions supported
the academy's "mission to offer the highest quality health care to
patients by combining the best of both worlds."
Panel members said the evidence is
"clear-cut" that acupuncture is valuable in treating postoperative and
chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, nausea in pregnancy, and
postoperative dental pain.
The 12-member committee, made up of
nongovernmental medical experts, reviewed all available research and
concluded that there is not yet sufficient evidence to draw the same
firm conclusion about acupuncture's impact on other ailments. But panel
members said that they were impressed with its potential for pain
relief for a diverse group of conditions.
"The research suggests some exciting
potential areas for the use of acupuncture [but] the quality or
quantity [of research] is not sufficient," the panel said, recommending
an expansion of research.
"The acceptance of acupuncture as a
reliable therapeutic choice in Western medicine will depend on such
rigorous studies," Ramsey said.
The panel called for more uniform
licensing, certification and accreditation of acupuncturists to help
the public identify qualified practitioners.
In 1972, California passed
legislation allowing nonphysician acupuncturists to practice with
physician supervision for purposes of research. It was the first of a
series of laws that led to exceptionally high educational standards for
acupuncturists within the state.
Thirty-four states license or
otherwise regulate the practice by nonphysicians and have training
standards for certification to practice acupuncture. In addition, the
Food and Drug Administration regulates the needles as part of its
medical device authority.
There are about 10,000 acupuncturists
in the United States, including 3,000 who are physicians, according to
the World Health Organization. In 1993, the FDA estimated that
Americans were spending $500 million annually on acupuncture.
© Los Angeles Times