Close up on acupuncture for pain

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Nearly 14 million Americans have tried acupuncture to treat chronic joint pain.

April 22, 2014— — A growing number of Americans would rather stop taking pills and avoid going under the knife to treat a swollen knee, achy lower back or achy hip. Instead, they turn to the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture to help relieve chronic joint pain.

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More than 14 million Americans have tried acupuncture, according to the most recent statistics from the National Health Interview Survey, a large ongoing study that tracks health habits in the United States. The study found nearly six percent of Americans have let themselves be pricked by dozens of fine needles to help relieve chronic pain, up from just one percent of patients a decade ago.

“The use of acupuncture has spread for a while and it is now becoming much more common in medicine,” said Dr. Houman Danesh, director of integrative pain management at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. .

So common in fact, that it is one of the few so-called “complementary” or alternative medicine approaches covered by most health insurance plans. Even the military use auricular acupuncture, a form of acupuncture that involves gently inserting small needles into various locations in the ear that correspond to pain points elsewhere on the body.

Research studies consistently show that acupuncture can be an effective form of pain management, with some studies finding it even more effective than painkillers or surgery. But exactly how it works remains a bit of a mystery, admits Danesh.

In theory, acupuncture stimulates the meridian points of the body. By releasing pressure on these energy-carrying channels, ancient Chinese doctors believed that needles corrected imbalances in the body by allowing energy or “chi” to flow more freely. Although mainstream Western medicine remains skeptical of the idea of ​​chi, Danesh said many meridian points coincide with trigger points, points on the body where pain radiates from the center when pressed.

“Trigger points are widely accepted in modern medicine and it is believed that acupuncture can alleviate stress on trigger points, thereby reducing pain in this area,” he said.

Meridian points also closely follow major nerve centers, Danesh said. The needles may stimulate the nerves, causing them to release feel-good chemicals called endorphins. People in pain often have low levels of endorphins, Danesh pointed out, and a release of those endorphins can suppress the sensation of pain.

There are still many acupuncture skeptics who believe that any offer of acupuncture for pain relief is strictly psychological. But Danesh said he didn’t care why it worked, as long as it worked.

“I’ve had a lot of skeptics come in for treatment and when they get better they believe,” he said.

Pain Management Tweet Chat Today at 1 p.m. ET

Chronic pain is one of the most serious health problems in the United States, affecting approximately 100 million Americans, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine. Almost 90% of respondents to an IOM survey said they deal with some level of pain on a daily basis.

Today’s ABC News Health tweet chat will discuss chronic pain and how best to manage it. Chat moderator Dr. Richard Besser, health and medical editor at ABC News, will moderate the conversation with experts, researchers and pain sufferers.

Do you suffer from back pain, numb knees, or another source of chronic pain? If so, come share your story with us and get insights on how to manage your condition. Even if you’re new to Twitter, joining the conversation is easy. Here’s how.

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