Acupuncture for the Treatment of Neuropathy
By Julie Rowin MD
Acupuncture has been utilized in the East for centuries and thought to balance “Chi”, one name for our vital life force energy. In the West, acupuncture is growing in popularity for the treatment of a variety of issues, including but not limited to headaches, digestive issues, neck and back pain, fatigue, anxiety and hormonal imbalances. Research studies support the use of acupuncture for a variety of chronic pain syndromes including chronic pain from diabetic neuropathy and carpal tunnel syndrome. (1,2)
A recent article published in 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Acupuncture for Chronic Pain, performed a large analysis of acupuncture in 29 clinical trials involving 17,922 subjects. It was concluded that acupuncture is associated with improved pain outcomes in a variety of pain syndromes as compared to controls. (2)
Although there are various approaches that can be utilized by the experienced acupuncturist in the treatment of neuropathy, the procedure most commonly utilized in medical acupuncture involves inserting very thin needles into acupuncture “points” which are located along the pathway of the affected nerves and muscles. Additionally, a small electrical current is often applied to the tips of the needles to augment the pain-relieving effect. Generally, the procedure does not cause discomfort. The needle insertion should and can be felt as the needle contacts the “Chi”, but it is generally not a very strong sensation and is typically well-tolerated. Some individuals find the sensation of the needles and the added electrical current calming to the nerves and emotions.
There are multiple theories for how acupuncture exerts its therapeutic effects, many of which are relevant to the nerves and neuropathy. Some of the proposed mechanisms of action include the promotion of the release of the body’s own pain-relieving chemicals and nerve growth factors and changes in the brain’s perception of pain.
Generally, a course of 6-12 acupuncture treatments, lasting from 30 minutes to one hour, 1-3 times per week is recommended to determine if acupuncture will be of benefit to any one individual. The results tend to be cumulative, and the benefits sometimes cannot be appreciated until after several weeks of treatment. Once benefit is noted, less frequent treatments may be sufficient to maintain the therapeutic effect. Some of the potential benefits of acupuncture for neuropathy include reduced aching, burning, prickling, numbness and hypersensitivity of the nerves.
Common side-effects of acupuncture can be bruising and soreness at the site of needle insertion. Very rarely, there are serious complications such as skin infection or organ puncture, complications which are avoidable by the proper technique and utilization of sterile, disposable needles by the practitioner. As long as the acupuncture is performed by a qualified practitioner, the procedure is safe. I would recommend seeking a physician (MD or DO) trained in medical acupuncture and board certified by the American Board of Medical Acupuncture (DABMA). The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture keeps a list of trained medical acupuncturists at their website: https://www.medicalacupuncture.org/Find-an-Acupuncturist
Acupuncture is not taught in the standard medical school training curriculum in the U.S. Therefore, your doctor may not be familiar with acupuncture as a safe and potentially effective alternative or complement to standard medical practices. Additionally, medical insurance does not always cover the costs of acupuncture. Fortunately, this situation continues to evolve and improve as more insurers and insured alike are turning to acupuncture as a safe, affordable alternative or complement to prescription medications.
Julie Rowin MD is board certified by the American Board of Medical Acupuncture and works with several modern adaptations of traditional acupuncture techniques for the treatment of neurological disorders including: Neuroanatomical acupuncture, Chinese scalp acupuncture and Auriculotherapy.
1. Dimitrova A, Murchison C, Oken B. Acupuncture for the Treatment of Peripheral Neuropathy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, NY). 2017;23(3):164-179.
2. Vickers AJ, Linde K. Acupuncture for chronic pain. JAMA. 2014;311(9):955-956.