Richard G. Petty, MD

Tools of the New Laws of Healing: Acupuncture

By Richard G. Petty, M.D.

Acupuncture has been in use for at least three thousand years and some evidence that our ancestors were first exploring this amazing form of healing seven thousand years ago. We now have several forms of acupuncture being practiced: Traditional Chinese, that operates on a system of yin and yang, of five elements, of Qi and channels along which it flows. There are many schools and styles of traditional acupuncture, and distinct forms of treatment have grown up in many parts of the Far East, including Japan, Korea and Vietnam. There is also something called "medical acupuncture," that ignores the principles and precepts of traditional Chinese medicine, and instead focuses on stimulating tender spots and using simple "recipes" for treating people. This stimulation might be with needles, lasers of electricity. Both types of acupuncture have been subjected to a great deal of research.

It may be that medical acupuncture works simply by stimulating the release of endorphins, or modulating some other chemical transmitters in the brain and spine. But the situation with traditional acupuncture is far more complex. Every competent practitioner has seen clinical responses that cannot be explained on that basis alone. I have seen many people report moving sensations that cannot be explained by any known anatomical or physiological pathways. In one of the first people that I ever treated when still a rookie, I stimulated a "liver" point in her foot, and she immediately said, "Oh, I can feel that in my eye." She was not to know that the liver channel runs from the foot and terminates in the eye.

I have personally treated people paralyzed by strokes, and have seen them recover far more than we would ever expect in Western medicine. Other odd things too, like the cartilage being restored in people with arthritis. The frustrating thing is that none of the treatments works every time. But when it does, it can be amazing.
Recent studies that have been published in major journals have extended the list of conditions that may improve with acupuncture to include:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • The side effects of HIV medicines
  • Arthritis of the knee
  • Overactive bladder in women
  • Itching associated with dialysis

On the other hand, I was surprised to see a large study of people with migraine, who failed to obtain much benefit. More than 20 years ago I reported good results using acupuncture for migraine at a conference in London. An esteemed colleague from Chicago immediately disagreed, saying that he had tried acupuncture and it had not worked for him. I think the message here is that it is not just the therapy, but also who is doing it.

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