By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Say the words “alternative medicine,” and you’re likely to envision acupuncture, a treatment that involves stimulating strategic points on the body with small needles. According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health, millions of adults have used acupuncture to treat a variety of conditions, from migraine headaches to low-back pain. But what’s often not mentioned is that children can be acupuncture patients, too. Figures from a 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which collects data every five years on the use of complementary and alternative medicine, showed that 150,000 children in the United States used acupuncture.
Exactly how acupuncture works is unknown. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners say that the treatment spurs healing by modulating the body’s chi or energy pathways. Western medicine experts believe that placing thin, metallic needles under the skin stimulates the release of certain chemicals in the brain that can calm down pain receptors in the body.
“Our belief is that a lot of chronic pain is not caused by anything other than a hyper-arousal of the nervous system,” says Michael Waterhouse, a licensed acupuncturist in Beverly Hills, Calif., who works with the pediatric pain program at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The kids have been in pain so long that the pain receptor sites in the brain are firing off all the time. Acupuncture can help stop that.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has no official stance on treating children with acupuncture, but a recent study published in its journal, Pediatrics, found that the practice is generally safe when performed by a skilled practitioner. In fact, fewer serious adverse effects are reported with acupuncture than with conventional pain treatments. Acupuncture can be used on even very young children, as long as the practitioner is trained to work with patients of that age. “I’ve treated 2-week-old infants with colic, for instance,” Waterhouse says.
Though the effectiveness of acupuncture for adults has been widely studied, less research on pediatric acupuncture exists. Waterhouse notes that large-scale trials in pediatrics have not happened yet. However, some studies have shown it to be an effective treatment for ailments like acute pain, anesthesia-induced vomiting, and headache. In the United States, acupuncture is mainly used in children to control nausea from surgery or chemotherapy treatments, as well as chronic pain, says Lawrence Rosen, MD, chairman of the AAP section on integrative medicine.
Most children tolerate acupuncture treatments quite well, says Waterhouse, whose pediatric patients are usually 8 to 18 years old. Patients who may not like the idea of having needles under their skin can still take advantage of acupuncture’s benefits with laser acupoint stimulation, which uses cold lasers to stimulate points on the body, or with acupressure, which involves pressing or massaging these areas. “It’s very easy to do a lot of points without pain this way,” Waterhouse says.
The role that acupuncture plays in a child’s treatment plan can vary. For children with cancer, it doesn’t replace conventional treatments, but it can be used to help control unwanted symptoms. For other conditions, acupuncture may be useful as a standalone therapy. “In acute or chronic pain cases, it may replace medication use in some patients,” Dr. Rosen says. In all instances, children who undergo acupuncture should be monitored by their pediatrician to make sure the treatments are helping.
Because the requirements for becoming an acupuncturist vary from state to state, it can be hard for parents to choose the right practitioner for their child. The most important step is checking with your state to make sure a practitioner you’re considering is licensed to practice acupuncture. A good place to start your search is on the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) website. Most states require that acupuncturists have completed the NCCAOM exam and/or certification process. You'll need to check further with office that regulates acupuncture in your state (note that Kansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming do not regulate acupuncture).
If you visit the NCCAOM State Licensure Requirements page and click on Acupuncture Licensure Requirement, you'll find a State Licensure Requirement table with contact information for your state. It's also important to be sure that the acupuncturist you're considering has experience in treating children.
“It’s just a question of personality after that,” Waterhouse says. “Make a few phone calls. Hopefully the acupuncturist will give you 5 minutes to talk on the phone and get a feel for what they’re like and if your personalities gel. You should always feel safe and that your child is in the hands of a competent practitioner.”
"Can Acupuncture Help Children?" originally appeared on Everyday Health.
Also on HuffPost:
1. Know What To Look For
It can be tough knowing where to start when beginning any new kind of treatment. First things first: know what to look for in your practitioner. <a href="http://www.healthwithacupuncture.com/" target="_hplink">Moores</a> says "you should always check that [your acupuncturist is] licensed and in good standing." Visit <a href="http://www.nccaom.org/" target="_hplink">www.nccaom.org</a> to find someone reputable. He or she should be licensed in your state and also nationally by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). If you are turning to acupuncture to treat a specific condition, mention it ahead of time to your practitioner. Moores says to ask if he or she has any specific experience in treating that ailment. "Usually hearing the answer will give you a good idea of whether or not you can trust him or her," she points out. Since you will be working intimately with your accupuncturist, it is imperative to ensure you're comfortable together. Even if the accupuncturist is well-regarded, if <em>you</em> don't feel at ease, then Moores says "you are cutting yourself and your healthcare short." <em>Flickr photo by Kara Ally</em>son
2. Come With An Open Mind
In order to entirely reap the benefits of this treatment, try your best to come to the appointment with an open mind. Moores explains: "Acupuncture works whether you believe it in or not. However, people will say you have to believe in it to work." Moores says that the shifts that occur from acupuncture are "subtle changes," meaning that those who are more in touch with their bodies can more easily notice them, while those who are less in-tune may take a longer time to feel any differences. <em>Flickr photo by James Qualtrough</em>
3. Come Prepared
Prepping for an acupuncture treatment consists of many different variables: it's best to be conscious of when you arrive, what you eat and even how you smell! Food-wise, Moore suggests eating something light before your appointment. "If you don't eat anything before, you can feel weak after the treatment because a lot of energy is moving around," she says. It's also best to stay away from caffeine for the day, if you can. And consider skipping the coffee before your visit, since it acts as a stimulant. Acupuncture shouldn't be stressful (just the opposite -- it is meant to relieve stress!). Come to your session early so you can relax. "You do not want to be rushing though an acupuncture session," Fitzgerald notes. She also reminds us of the golden rule: use the bathroom before you go! Solid advice, as you may be on the table for a half hour or longer. If possible, do not wear any scented creams or fragrances the day of your appointment. Moores explains that "a lot of people are sensitive. I treat things like headaches ... plenty of patients say 'what's that smell? It's giving me a headache."' While <em>you</em> may not be affected by certain scents, it's best to be mindful of other patients who might be particularly sensitive. Lastly, the omnipresent question -- <em>what should I wear? </em> -- has an easy solution. While your acupuncturist will likely provide a gown, Dr. Fitzgerald suggests wearing loose-fitting clothing for comfort. <em>Flickr photo by nicolasnova</em>
4. Be On The Record
Both Fitzgerald and Moores recommend bringing medical records, even if you think they are unrelated to your treatment. "The acupuncturist will spend a lot of time asking questions that might not even seem related to your condition," Fitzgerald says. He or she may ask about digestion, sleep paterns, gynecological history, mental health issues and more. Chinese medicine looks at all conditions as "interrelated," even if there's no obvious connection in the Western view. Moores agrees: "If you have a history of medications, diagnostic tests, MRIs, always bring them; when you have any diagnostic test, blood test or anything, you should keep a copy. Those results can help us." <em>Flickr photo by breahn</em>
5. Speak Up
Even if you're a rookie to this old practice, make sure you're understanding everything that's happening. "Remember it is <em>your</em> visit and <em>your </em>health," Fitzgerald says. "Make sure you communicate your needs and everything you can about your condition so the acupuncturist can have as much information as possible for your assessment. If something is not clear, don't be shy to ask for clarification." Speak up to advocate for yourself. "Your practitioner could explain things in Eastern terminology," she continues. "Be sure to ask for clarification and don't hesitate to make sure you understand your treatment protocol." <em>Flickr photo by paparutzi</em>
6. No Really, Open Your Mouth
It's normal for the acupuncturist to check your tongue to assess the general health of your organs and meridians. Your practitioner will also check your pulse, which Moores says can reveal a lot. "It can tell you what's going on in the body as far as stagnation and stress," she explains. "We're not really checking for the rate." <em>Flickr photo by nathanmac87</em>
7. They Call It A 'Zing'
If you're Trypanophobic, we'll give it to you straight: more likely than not, your acupuncturist will be using needles. If you're feeling just a little wary, know that, as Moores puts it, "acupuncture needles are sterile, one-time use disposable needles." They are also incredibly flexible and not at all like those used to draw blood. But do they hurt? "That's the one big question," Moores says. "I don't think [it hurts]," she continues, "most people don't think so." But while it's not necessarily a painful experience, you may feel sensitivities on different areas of the body. "Sometimes you can feel a little qi sensation -- we call it a 'zing.' It's when the needle hits the nerve," she says, comparing it to the feeling you get when you hit your funny bone. Some spots may bleed once the needles are removed -- the ears are a particularly sensitive area. If this happens, the blood is usually less than a drop, and the bleeding will stop before you leave the office. <em>Flickr photo by SuperFantastic</em>
Before You Leave...
After the session, be sure to rehydrate. "Definitely drink water because we're getting the energy to circulate because you want to be hydrated," Moores says. Once you leave, you should be a-OK to continue about your day. In fact, you may not feel a thing. "As you start getting regular treatments," Moores says, "you may notice feeling more uplifted. <em>Flickr photo by Svadilfari</em>
The Science Of Acupuncture
This health video focuses on the different benefits acupuncture can provide for many different illnesses.