If you’ve ever experienced chronic pain, headaches or even insomnia, chances are acupuncture has been suggested to you as a possible way of treating these problems. It’s a part of traditional Chinese medicine that’s been around for thousands of years and sees fine needles inserted into various points across the skin in a bid to encourage the body to heal itself.
While many people swear by the treatment, health experts are divided over how effective acupuncture really is, with Friends of Science in Medicine in 2016 claiming there’s no consistent evidence that acupuncture provides any lasting benefit beyond a placebo effect and no evidence of efficacy. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) also warned Aussies earlier this year that complimentary therapies such as acupuncture could have serious side effects and leave people out of pocket, claiming there is little evidence to support the therapeutic claims made for most complimentary services. It’s a claim those who practice acupuncture dismiss.
“There’s growing evidence and there’s many clinical trials,” Brendan Meek, acupuncturist and herbalist at Authentic Acupuncture in Balmain, tells Starts at 60. “Hundreds of studies have already been done and more are underway to show that it works.”
For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July found that acupuncture could be beneficial as an adjunctive treatment for angina, while another 2019 study published in the BMJ Open Journal found a brief course of acupuncture could help ease menopausal symptoms including hot flushes, sweating, mood swings, sleep disturbance and skin and hair problems.
The AMA says evidence-based, scientific research in the form of randomised controlled trials is required to validate complementary medicines and therapies for efficacy, safety, quality and cost effectiveness, but Waveny Holland, president of the Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association (AACMA), says acupuncture can’t be researched in the same way as Western medicine.
Randomised controlled trials use a placebo (treatment which is not designed to have a therapeutic value) to reduce bias, but Holland says this simply doesn’t work with acupuncture because placebos or sham acupuncture – where an acupuncturist simply puts pressure on a point without penetrating the skin with a needle – can still have positive impacts.
“If you hurt yourself or if you’ve got a pain in the gut, you naturally press certain areas to relieve that pain and that’s how the ancient healers found out about the acupuncture points in the first instance,” Holland says. “If you’re doing sham acupuncture, you’re still putting pressure on that point, so you’re still going to get some therapeutic benefit – whether the needle penetrates or not.”
The AACMA released the Acupuncture Evidence Project in 2017 and while it shows evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture for 117 conditions, it acknowledges that there’s more evidence for certain conditions. Chronic low back pain, headaches, knee osteoarthritis and postoperative nausea, vomiting and pain have strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of acupuncture, while issues such as anxiety, neck pain, restless leg syndrome, cancer pain and heel pain are some of the many conditions with moderate evidence.
Meanwhile, there is very weak evidence to show that acupuncture works for issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, bladder pain syndrome, chronic kidney disease, heart failure and glaucoma, and little or no evidence that it helps in assisting with quitting alcohol, certain drugs or conditions such as epilepsy.
“It’s always about diagnosing correctly to choose points,” Meek says. “Just poking spots isn’t good therapy.”
Acupuncture treatment is usually ongoing because people are managing chronic pain or illnesses and while it’s not a cure, it can relieve pain, increase mobility or improve quality of life. Holland says: “I’ve got lots of patients who come once a month for treatment and my appointments are an hour. It’s like taking your car in for a service to maintain it so it keeps running smoothly and that you don’t break down.”
While there’s been an increase in many allied health practitioners offering more rudimentary forms of acupuncture, they don’t always receive the same level of training as Chinese medicine practitioners, who require a four-year Bachelor of Health Science degree on Chinese medicine and acupuncture to be able to practice.
“We have to be registered with the Federal Government nationally to practice and we’re mandated to have that four-year Bachelor’s degree,” Holland says. “The difference with our four-year Bachelor’s degree is we’ve got a thousand hours of clinical practice minimum in those four years.”
Holland warns that while some physiotherapists, chiropractors and even beauty therapists may offer acupuncture, it’s possible for them to complete a simple weekend course to begin practicing acupuncture and that it’s always important to check a professional’s education and background for your own safety. Only people with the four-year degree can legally call themselves acupuncturists.
“I would advocate people ask verbally first,” Meek adds. “If you’re screening and looking on peoples’ websites, they often mention it.”
Chinese medicine practitioners aren’t offered as part of a patient’s chronic disease management program which offers a Medicare rebate, but other allied health professionals are. This means it’s extra important to check an expert’s background before receiving acupuncture and to talk with a health professional about what treatments are best for you.
“If you’ve tried everything else and nothing’s working, find a qualified person and give it a go,” Meek says. “You should be thinking, ‘What have I got to lose?’”
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