WASHINGTON, D.C.--After decades of largely being spurned by the U.S. medical establishment, acupuncture seems to be gaining some respectability. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration took the "experimental" label off acupuncture needles as medical devices. And today a panel of experts assembled by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that acupuncture is effective treatment for nausea and some forms of pain.
About 1 million people get stuck in the United States each year, mostly for pain relief, the panel said. Some Western researchers say acupuncture triggers the production of many different chemicals, including pain-killing endorphins, calming endogenous benzodiazepines, and mood-lifting serotonin. "The challenge in studying acupuncture is to integrate the theory of Chinese medicine into the conventional Western biomedical research model," says panel chair David Ramsay, president of the University of Maryland.
The conference, sponsored by NIH's Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), reviewed research on a host of ailments: from nausea and ovulatory problems to paralysis and drug abuse. Although finding that most acupuncture studies are wanting for various reasons, such as covering too few subjects or lacking controls, the panel found "clear evidence" that needle acupuncture can relieve nausea from operations and chemotherapy, and perhaps morning sickness as well. They also found "evidence of efficacy" for postoperative dental pain, and "reasonable studies" showing pain relief for other conditions.
To penetrate deeper into acupuncture's mystique, the panel called for more research--music to the ears of OAM, which has sponsored $2 million of acupuncture research over the past 5 years. Particularly fuzzy areas, the panel noted, include discriminating "real" from "sham" acupuncture points for research purposes.
But experts not invited to address the panel say there's less mystery than meets the eye. Longtime acupuncture practitioner George Ulett, a psychiatrist and neurologist at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health in St. Louis, says you can forget about Yin and Yang: Electrical stimulation--be it with needles or conductive pads--is "a very simple technique" for stirring up hormones that act on nerves.