When to Use Acupuncture and When to Go to Your Doctor

When it comes to trying acupuncture, either for the first time or for treating a new condition, patients are faced with a number of questions and concerns. In the past, alternative healing came with stereotypes, and even today some of my patients are surprised to find us in a clinic—they were expecting incense, beaded curtains, mood rings and earth shoes. The reality, however, is that more and more patients are receiving acupuncture for a variety of illnesses and health conditions, many patients are referred to acupuncture by their doctors, and many US hospitals offer acupuncture to their patients.

Acupuncture versus Western medicineDespite the increased acceptance of acupuncture and Chinese medicine throughout the US, many patients are still stymied as to when it’s appropriate to go the acupuncture route and when they should be checking things out with their doctor. While there’s no simple answer, here are a few considerations:

-Is acupuncture an effective treatment for your condition? Hundreds of years ago, Chinese medicine was the only healing game in town—at least in China. Therefore it was used to treat everything, whether it was effective or not. Today, there are literally thousands of research studies exploring the effectiveness of acupuncture for various health conditions. My advice: Do some homework. A good place to start is with the World Health Organization, (WHO). They have an updated list on health conditions that, based on the research, acupuncture can effectively treat. Also, spend some time checking out the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There’s plenty of information out there, and it’s worth your time to check it out.

-Understand that Chinese medicine and Western medicine aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, while acupuncture used to be called alternative medicine, it is now more appropriately called complementary or integrative medicine, because it can be used in tandem with Western medical treatments.

-Do you need a referral from your doctor to try acupuncture? Not really, but some people feel better checking in with their doc before trying a new therapy. That said, there are many doctors who will wholeheartedly recommend acupuncture (remember it’s now offered in many hospitals) and others who may not. Their decision may depend on their own exposure to acupuncture and Chinese medicine.

-Be sure to check your practitioner’s cred. There are many chiropractors, physical therapists, and other practitioners who offer acupuncture as an aside. They may be fabulous at what they are trained to do, but frequently that don’t have adequate training in acupuncture; some with only about 30 hours of training before they start needling patients. Licensed acupuncturists have about 3,000 hours of training, with over 600 of those hours spent hands-on in a teaching clinic. In addition, beware of terms like “certified acupuncturist” and “dry needling”, which are ways of getting around the fact that a practitioner is not licensed (by their State Board of Medical Examiners) in acupuncture and Chinese medicine. When it comes to acupuncture or any kind of needling, it’s really important to ask about the practitioner’s training.

-If you are taking prescription medications and are thinking about adding an herbal formula to your treatment plan, be sure to ask about herb/drug interactions. While there is a body of information about herb/drug interactions, there is still a lot to be known. As a practitioner, my rule of thumb is that if you are taking a number of prescription medications, I would forego the herbs. In addition, I tend to prescribe herbs for a limited amount of time.

-When to go the acupuncture route:  Many people turn to acupuncture to treat conditions in which Western medicine has not been helpful, such as chronic pain, digestive problems, fatigue, and fibromyalgia. In addition, many patients turn to acupuncture because they want to avoid taking a prescription medication for the long term. In this instance, acupuncture can be helpful in treating such conditions as depression, anxiety, heartburn, allergies, and insomnia.

-Some things are non-negotiable. If you have any kind of heart condition, a broken bone or joint dislocation, acute abdominal pain, a systemic infection, persistent bleeding, sudden weight loss, or undiagnosed neurological issues, get yourself to a doctor, because if you show up in my office with any of those things, that’s where I’m sending you. If you’ve already been checked out by your doc, then we’re good to go.

While it can be a little complicated to know when acupuncture is a good choice and when you should go the Western medical route, keep a few things in mind. First, if it’s serious or you’re unsure, get it checked out. Second, do a little homework; and third, don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.

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