Study confirms successful treatment of chronic painDespite the fact that acupuncture is widely practiced in the U.S. and more than one-third of pain treatment centers provide acupuncture as a therapy, it is used very rarely in the treatment of children. For the past two years, however, Children’s Hospital Boston has operated one of the most active pediatric medical acupuncture services in the country. And according to a recent, year-long study conducted at Children’s, the therapy has proven successful in treating chronic pain conditions without side effects.
Yuan-Chi Lin, MD, MPH, FAAP, director of Children’s Medical Acupuncture Service and author of the study, treats more than chronic pain. His clinic treats patients for, among other things, postoperative surgery and dental pain; sinusitis, bronchitis and asthma; gastritis, colitis, hiccups and constipation.
Traditional Chinese medicine explains the efficacy of this 3,000-year-old therapy by its ability to restore balance to “Qi” (pronounced “chee”) as it flows through a complex system of meridians throughout the body.
Research into the neurobiological process stimulated by acupuncture suggests that its analgesic effects rely on production of endogenous opioid peptides, such as the endorphins and enkephalins, and stimulation of the endogenous descending inhibitory pathways.
While acupuncture, which is performed by inserting special hair-thin needles into the skin at specific sites, doesn’t reverse the pathology of disease, it has proven tremendously helpful in managing illness. “The goal in my clinic is to decrease children’s pain and symptoms so that they may participate in activities at school, in sports and with their peers,” says Dr. Lin.
Dr. Lin resists labeling acupuncture an “alternative therapy,” preferring “complementary therapy” since integrating the procedure with Western medicine can prove beneficial.
As a pediatrician, anesthesiologist and pain specialist, Dr. Lin has a unique opportunity to integrate acupuncture with more common therapies. Adding acupuncture sessions to antihistamine treatments, for example, can achieve comparable results to higher doses of the medication alone, while decreasing side effects such as drowsiness. Similarly, post-operative acupuncture can reduce the nausea and vomiting caused by narcotic painkillers.
The biggest challenge in pediatric acupuncture is addressing children’s fear of needles. Most children experience some degree of needle phobia, making them more hesitant to try acupuncture than adults. To deal with this issue, Dr. Lin often spends 45 minutes to an hour with first-time patients and their families to make them completely comfortable with the procedure. The size of the needle is about a quarter of the diameter of the regular 22-gauge IV needles most children have come into contact with, and the tip of the needle is blunt. Dr. Lin carefully explains the process and can demonstrate it on a child’s toy animal or even on his own hand. Once a child is amenable to acupuncture, he or she is usually surprised to find that the discomfort is minimal.