Using acupuncture before and during surgery significantly reduces the level of pain and the amount of potent painkillers needed by patients after the surgery is over, according to Duke University Medical Center anesthesiologists who combined data from 15 small randomized acupuncture clinical trials.
"While the amount of opioids needed for patients who received acupuncture was much lower than those who did not have acupuncture, the most important outcome for the patient is the reduction of the side effects associated with opioids," said Tong Joo (T.J.) Gan, M.D., a Duke anesthesiologist who presented the results of the analysis at the annual scientific conference of the American Society for Anesthesiology in San Francisco. "These side effects can negatively impact a patient's recovery from surgery and lengthen the time spent in the hospital."
Based on the results of this analysis, Gan recommends that acupuncture should be considered a viable option for pain control in surgery patients.
Patients who received acupuncture had significantly lower risk of developing most common side effects associated with opioid drugs compared with control: 1.5 times lower rates of nausea, 1.3 times fewer incidences of severe itching, 1.6 times fewer reports of dizziness and 3.5 times fewer cases of urinary retention.
Opioids are a class of medications that act on the body much like morphine. While they are effective in controlling pain, the side effects of the drugs often influence a patient's recovery from, and satisfaction with, their surgery, Gan said.
The results of this study add to the growing body of evidence that acupuncture can play an effective role in improving the quality of the surgical experience, Gan added. Numerous studies, some conducted by Gan, have demonstrated that acupuncture can also be more effective than current medications in lessening the occurrence of post operative nausea and vomiting, the most common side effect experienced by patients after surgery.
"Acupuncture is slowly becoming more accepted by American physicians, but it is still underutilized," Gan said. "Studies like this, which show that there is a benefit to using it, should help give physicians sitting on the fence the data they need to integrate acupuncture into their routine care of surgery patients."
Acupuncture has the added benefits of being inexpensive, with virtually no side effects, when done by properly trained personnel, Gan added.
The Chinese have been using acupuncture for more than 5,000 years for the treatment of a variety of ailments, including headaches, gastrointestinal disorders and arthritis. According to Chinese healing practices, there are about 360 specific points along 14 different lines, or meridians, that course throughout the body just under the skin.
"The Chinese believe that our vital energy, known as chi, flows throughout the body along these meridians," Gan explained. "While healthiness is a state where the chi is in balance, unhealthiness or disease state arises from either too much or too little chi, or a blockage in the flow of the chi."
Different bodily locations or organs have their own distinct acupuncture points that are the targets for the acupuncturist. For example, a point just below the wrist is the common target for women undergoing breast procedures to prevent nausea and vomiting, another point at the back of the hand is effective in reducing pain.
While it is not completely known why or how acupuncture works, recent research seems to point to its ability to stimulate the release of hormones or the body's own painkillers, known as endorphins, Gan said. He is now conducting studies to determine the exact mechanism behind acupuncture's effects.
Other members of the research team included Yanxia Sun, John Dubose and Ashraf Habib. The meta-analysis was supported by Duke's Department of Anesthesiology.
Acupuncture Works for Back Pain
Fake acupuncture works nearly as well as the real thing for low back pain, and either kind performs much better than usual care, German researchers have found. Almost half the patients treated with acupuncture needles felt relief that lasted months. In contrast, only about a quarter of the patients receiving medications and other Western medical treatments felt better.
Even fake acupuncture worked better than conventional care, leading researchers to wonder whether pain relief came from the body's reactions to any thin needle pricks or, possibly, the placebo effect.
"Acupuncture represents a highly promising and effective treatment option for chronic back pain," study co-author Dr. Heinz Endres of Ruhr University Bochum in Bochum, Germany, said in an e-mail. "Patients experienced not only reduced pain intensity, but also reported improvements in the disability that often results from back pain and therefore in their quality of life."
Although the study was not designed to determine how acupuncture works, Endres said, its findings are in line with a theory that pain messages to the brain can be blocked by competing stimuli.
Positive expectations the patients held about acupuncture - or negative expectations about conventional medicine - also could have led to a placebo effect and explain the findings, he said.
In the largest experiment on acupuncture for back pain to date, more than 1,100 patients were randomly assigned to receive either acupuncture, sham acupuncture or conventional therapy. For the sham acupuncture, needles were inserted, but not as deeply as for the real thing. The sham acupuncture also did not insert needles in traditional acupuncture points on the body and the needles were not manually moved and rotated.
After six months, patients answered questions about pain and functional ability and their scores determined how well each of the therapies worked.
In the real acupuncture group, 47 percent of patients improved. In the sham acupuncture group, 44 percent did. In the usual care group, 27 percent got relief.
"We don't understand the mechanisms of these so-called alternative treatments, but that doesn't mean they don't work," said Dr. James Young of Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, who wasn't involved in the research. Young often treats low back pain with acupuncture, combined with exercises and stretches.
Chinese medicine holds that there are hundreds of points on the body that link to invisible pathways for the body's vital energy, or qi. The theory goes that stimulating the correct points with acupuncture needles can release blocked qi.
Dr. Brian Berman, the University of Maryland's director of complementary medicine, said the real and the sham acupuncture may have worked for reasons that can be explained in Western terms: by changing the way the brain processes pain signals or by releasing natural painkillers in the body.
In the study, the conventional treatment included many methods: painkillers, injections, physical therapy, massage, heat therapy or other treatments. Like the acupuncture patients, the patients getting usual care received about 10 sessions of 30 minutes each.
The study, appearing in Monday's Archives of Internal Medicine, used a broad definition for low back pain, but ruled out people with back pain caused by spinal fractures, tumors, scoliosis and pregnancy.
Funding came from German health insurance companies, and the findings already have led to more coverage in Germany of acupuncture.