Acupuncture, which is one form of traditional Chinese medicine, is based on a theory of body functioning that involves the flow of energy—known as qi (pronounced chee)—through 14 pathways (called "meridians") throughout the body. According to the theories of Chinese medicine, disease results from an imbalance or disruption in the flow of energy and in the optimal balance between the opposite forces of "yin" and "yang."
Acupuncture involves stimulating specific locations on the skin, usually by inserting thin, disposable metallic needles into points along the meridians in the body in order to alter the flow of energy. Other methods of stimulating the skin may also be used, including finger pressure (also known as acupressure or shiatsu in Japan), cupping with small heated cups, electroacupuncture with electrically-stimulated needles, and moxibustion with smoldering fibers of an herb called "Asian mugwort." Of approximately 400 acupuncture points on the body, approximately four to 12 are stimulated in a single treatment session. It generally takes six to 10 sessions to determine if the treatment is going to be beneficial.
Use of Acupuncture by People With MS
While acupuncture has been used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions, it is only since the 1970s that it has gained popularity in this country. There is some evidence that the use of acupuncture among people with MS may be higher than in the general population. According to two recent surveys in the United States and Canada, approximately 20-25% of respondents with MS had tried acupuncture for the relief of pain, spasticity, numbness and tingling, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and bowel and bladder symptoms. Of those who had tried acupuncture for symptom relief, 10-15% indicated that they planned to continue using it. To date, however, there have been no controlled clinical trials to evaluate the safety and efficacy of acupuncture in people with MS.
Studies in Other Medical Conditions
In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened a 12-member panel to evaluate the numerous studies that had been done of acupuncture in other medical conditions. The panel concluded that acupuncture is a reasonable treatment option following a stroke, and for the management of headaches, facial pain, low back pain and neck pain. Additional studies have suggested that acupuncture might be beneficial for anxiety, depression, dizziness and urinary problems. Since none of the participants in these studies had MS, there is no way to know whether the benefits would be the same in people who have MS.
Risks and Side Effects
The NIH panel concluded from their review of the studies that acupuncture is a safe treatment that is very well-tolerated by most people, especially if performed by a well-trained acupuncturist. The use of sterile, disposable needles is essential to avoid any risk of hepatitis or AIDS.
Possible Effects on the Immune System
The possible impact of acupuncture on the body's immune system is not clear. Of the numerous studies that have been done in people with cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and AIDS, some suggested that the immune system was enhanced, while others showed an inhibiting effect or no effect at all. Since MS is associated with over-activity of some parts of the immune system, it will be important to clarify this issue before risks and benefits for people with MS can be clearly determined.
Recommendations for People With MS
Acupuncture may provide relief for some MS-related symptoms, including pain, spasticity, numbness and tingling, bladder problems, and depression. There is no evidence, however, that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of MS exacerbations or slow the progression of disability. If acupuncture is used, it should be as an addition to, rather than as a substitute for, standard medical treatments, and should only be used after consultation with one's physician or other MS healthcare professional. In addition, the treatment should be provided by a licensed acupuncturist. There are about 18,000 licensed practitioners in the United States.
A referral service that lists state-licensed acupuncturists.
825 College Blvd.
Oceanside, CA 92057
Web site: www.acufinder.com/
American Academy of Medical Acupuncture
4929 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 428
Los Angeles, CA 90010
Web site: www.medicalacupuncture.org/
National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
76 South Laura St., Ste. 1290
Jacksonville, FL 32202
Web site: www.nccaom.org/