Pain relief’s the point of acupuncture

The L.A. Times, August 07, 2000 | BARRIE R. CASSILETH

B is an active, healthy 71-year-old adult male. Four years ago, he had triple bypass surgery, similar to the procedure David Letterman had recently. His surgery was successful except for a lingering burning and stinging pain along the incision in his left leg where a vein had been removed, sections of which would replace those that had failed in his heart.

Over the next few years, creams and lotions failed to ease the pain, which sometimes kept him awake at night. The surgeon suggested plastic surgery to try to remove the cause of the pain, probably a nicked nerve. But more surgery had little appeal. When a friend suggested acupuncture, Bill was skeptical. He checked the Internet and consumer-oriented health publications, and found that Americans are using acupuncture increasingly to relieve migraine headaches, nausea and pain.

Bill made an appointment with a licensed acupuncturist who was also a physician. He put on a gown and lay down on a treatment table. The room lights were dim, the table warm. The acupuncturist methodically placed about a dozen acupuncture needles at specific points in his leg. Bill felt no discomfort as the thin, disposable needles were inserted along his lower leg.

The doctor told Bill to relax and enjoy the restful music that gently filled the room. He dozed off. After 45 minutes, the doctor removed the needles and asked Bill to return for a second treatment in two weeks.

The intense pain gradually began to dissipate, but enough remained to warrant keeping the next appointment. After that second session, the pain disappeared. Now, more than six months and no additional treatments later, it has not returned.

Did the acupuncture really work or was it a placebo effect?

There is increasing evidence from scientifically valid studies around the world of the physiological effect of placing needles in muscles and fibers of the body. Researchers are finding that acupuncture does interrupt messages on their way to pain identification centers in the midbrain and elsewhere.

Acupuncture is perhaps the most widely accepted alternative therapy among mainstream practitioners for the management of certain types of pain and for addiction control. It is used in many hospitals and clinics. A University of Maryland study estimates that 1 million Americans use acupuncture annually to treat pain and other problems.