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Courtesy of Yosef Pollack, Acupuncture Points

Meridian lines and acupuncture points mapped out on a bust.

New research shows that acupuncture can work--even if it misses target

by Tara S. Kerpelman
Jan 22, 2009

Although acupuncture could be a valuable treatment tool for headaches, precise entry points for needles may not be as important as once thought for the treatment of migraines, new research published on Wednesday found.

Dr. Klaus Linde, from the Technical University of  Munich, Germany, and his colleagues published two separate reviews in the Cochrane Collaboration Library, an international online publication. They reviewed studies on the use of acupuncture for tension-type headaches and for migraines.

Both reviews showed that patients who used acupuncture had fewer headaches and fewer side effects than when they were taking medications.

The review on the use of acupuncture with migraines showed that there was no difference between the effects of “real” versus “sham”, or placebo, treatment. The sham treatment involved either inserting the needles at non-acupuncture points on the body or not inserting the needles at all. Participants in both these groups reported having fewer headaches so the study concluded that “the correct placement of needles seems to be less relevant than is usually thought by acupuncturists.”

But acupuncturists say that this finding may be explained by the fact that needles stimulate the body no matter where they enter the skin. “When you put a needle in someone, endorphins [or pain-blocking chemicals] are released. It makes perfect sense that sham acupuncture would have a positive effect [on a patient],” said Dr. Aaron Michelfelder, a family medicine physician, who is also certified in medical acupuncture.

Acupuncture is based on the theory that the Qi, pronounced chee, or energy, regulates a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health and flows through channels in the body called meridians, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. If the Qi is blocked, traditional Chinese medicine says that the person will develop different ailments. In order to cure these, needles can be inserted at points on the body that connect with the different channels.

“Because points on the body are related, they have more global effects,” said Dr. David Miller, a medical doctor and a licensed acupuncturist. For example, you may have a point on your foot that is related to a point on your hip. So if during the study the acupuncturist had inserted a needle at a point that was not necessarily important for treating migraines, the sham treatment could still have had an effect on other parts of functioning and helped the person feel better.
“Another problem with acupuncture studies is that an acupuncturist has no protocol – he tailors treatment to the individual patient,” Michelfelder said. Since studies are controlled, the acupuncturist must adjust their techniques to suit the study and this can be problematic in testing acupuncture under “real” conditions.

Studies in acupuncture have to be taken with a grain of salt, Miller said. “Acupuncture is meant to be used in the context of Chinese medicine as a whole, with dietary recommendations, lifestyle changes, behavioral, nutritional therapies, stress management techniques.” When it is under investigation it is hard to control all those factors with all the different patients, he said.

Although studies on this ancient Chinese treatment are important to understanding its efficacy and implications, acupuncturists warn that the studies often disregard the larger picture of a patient’s life. “My personal experience with patients has been that headaches often respond very well to acupuncture and I have had many patients, especially migraine patients, get off of medication,” Michelfelder said. “It’s also a much cheaper treatment option.”