Acupuncture is a traditional technique used in Chinese medicine in which very fine needles are inserted in specific areas of the body to restore health and well-being. It's has been adapted to Western medicine by some practitioners who claim it helps patients with problems ranging from smoking cessation to constipation.
The technique has long been used for pain management. Duke University researcher and anesthesiologist T.J. Gan recently reviewed multiple studies of its effectiveness in that area.
He found that most of the studies were small, and not very well conducted. "For example, many have no control group — what we call a placebo group — and many have very little way to try to have a good placebo group, because in acupuncture sometimes you either have needles, or no needles," he explains. "So at these many publications, we identified about 15 studies that perhaps are more rigorously done with the randomized fashion, with the control group."
Gan and his colleagues focused on the use of acupuncture for post-operative pain. He says it's important to find ways to reduce reliance on opiod pain relievers such as morphine after surgery. He points out that morphine does more than dull pain. "Morphine is associated with many other side effects, [such as] nausea, vomiting, itchiness, respiratory depression, urinary retention, feeling drowsy." He adds that many elderly patients can get confused when they are given morphine.
After reviewing the articles and combining the data in them, Gan and his colleagues found that with acupuncture, post-operative patients needed fewer opiates.
Using acupuncture also reduced the incidence of nausea and vomiting by about half. Gan says that's important because more than half of patients experience these side effects with morphine.
Acupuncture also reduced some of the more severe side effects. "Things such as respiratory depression, or in other words patients don't breathe as well after surgery, as well as urinary retention, which is a very unpleasant side effect of morphine, we found that the acupuncture can reduce it by about three and a half times compared to a similar patient undergoing surgery without acupuncture," he reports.
No matter what kind of surgery the patients had, the acupuncture was effective at reducing post-operative pain.
However, Gan admits it will take some time before American doctors accept it as a legitimate therapy. He says he'd like to do research to find out what really makes acupuncture work.
Gan presented his paper recently at the annual meeting of the American Society for Anesthesiology.