By Christina Larmer
AUSTRALIAN hospitals are finally catching up with what the Chinese have long known –acupuncture is a great alternative form of pain relief.
Acupuncture is fast gaining acceptance in mainstream medicine right across the Western world. It’s already used routinely in several Australian emergency departments and is now undergoing a randomised, controlled trial in three Melbourne hospitals to alleviate pain from acute migraines, back pain and ankle sprain.
Researchers at the University of York and Hull York Medical School in the UK have just mapped acupuncture’s effect on the brain and have found that it changes specific neural structures, deactivating the areas in the brain associated with the processing of pain.
This is key, says Professor Marc Cohen, head of the trial and professor of complementary medicine at RMIT University.
“We know that pain is the most common reason for people coming to emergency departments, and we know that it’s not very well treated in that a lot of people don’t get sufficient pain relief,” he says.
“We also know that pharmacotherapy, the main method of treating pain in emergency situations, has severe side effects. Some people can’t tolerate drugs, others find that opioid medication such as pethidine or morphine causes nausea and constipation. Once you give morphine you have to watch the patient for several hours and monitor blood pressure and nausea.
“What we’ve found anecdotally is that people who have come into an emergency department in pain and tried acupuncture, have had their pain relieved in a very short period of time.”
Acupuncture can also be safely combined with most conventional drugs and treatments and has very few side effects.
Today, acupuncture is one of the most accepted complementary therapies in the country, with more than 80 per cent of GPs referring patients to an accredited acupuncturist in the past 12 months.
And, despite not being part of the standard curriculum, about one-fifth of GPs have gone on to do post-graduate training in acupuncture.
You can thank modern science for that, says Dr Morton Rawlin, vice president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
“Acupuncture has gradually increased its acceptability over the last 20 years [because] it has good, double-blind, scientific proof that it is of assistance for pain and other disorders.”
But has it reached a tipping point? “We’re on the verge,” says Professor Cohen. “Emergency physicians and GPs have taken it up on their own initiative because they see the benefits. If we find positive results [in the study] it will open the door for it to be included in all Western emergency departments and that will be a major shift.”
So when should you be demanding acupuncture over mainstream medical treatments?
“Acupuncture, like all modalities of treatment for different conditions, needs to be discussed by the individual with their doctor,” says Dr Rawlin.
Professor Cohen agrees. “Everyone’s situation is individual, but the one thing I can say is that acupuncture can’t really hurt. So try it.”
Just be warned: it’s not a panacea.
“Acupuncture won’t help everyone for everything,” says Professor Cohen. “But there are cases where people have gone the gamut of Western medicine, had no relief and then acupuncture has given significant relief.
“Acupuncture provides a different perspective on a treatment program and, in the hands of a trained therapist, has been shown over thousands of years to be extremely safe.”
How it can help you…
1 Dental anxiety – New British research shows acupuncture can calm dental patients and help post-operative pain.
More information: www.ada.org.au
2 Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – A 2009 Swedish study found that PCOS can be relieved by the use of electro-acupuncture – where the needles are stimulated with a low-frequency current.
More information: www.posaa.asn.au
3 Depression – Chicago researchers found acupuncture may be an effective alternative treatment to antidepressants for depression during pregnancy. It’s also being increasingly used in psychiatric disorders.
More information: www.beyondblue.org.au
4 Breast cancer treatment – A recent trial of breast cancer patients in Norway found acupuncture provided a 50 per cent reduction in hot flushes.
More information: www.cancercouncil.com.au
5 Migraines – Randomised controlled studies have shown acupuncture can reduce tension headaches by half and ensure fewer headaches after three to four months than routine drug treatment.
More information: www.acupuncture.com.au
6 IVF – A 2008 review of seven clinical trials into acupuncture found that when given to women undergoing embryo transfer, acupuncture may improve rates of pregnancy for one in 10 women.
More information at www.ivfacupuncture.com.au