Acupuncture: Kids going under the needle
By Darcy Lewis
During the past decade, record numbers of adults flocked to acupuncturists seeking relief from pain and chronic illnesses. It was inevitable that children would follow, even though the idea of kids willingly going within 10 feet of needles seems implausible.
Acupuncture is the ancient Chinese practice of inserting fine needles into specific points on the skin to relieve pain and treat disease. It is based on the principle of qi (pronounced “chee”), the belief that energy flows throughout the body along 20 internal channels called meridians. Illness and pain are believed to result from blocked qi, so acupuncture focuses on clearing the meridians to restore health.
Although acupuncture is 2,000 years old, Western medicine is just beginning to explain how it works. Scientists have difficulty locating meridians because they do not correspond to nerve or circulatory pathways. But scientists have found evidence that acupuncture points conduct electromagnetic signals and trigger the release of pain-killing chemicals and immune-system cells.
Acupuncture received a boost in the United States in 1997, when the National Institutes of Health recognized it as effective in treating specific conditions, including asthma, nausea, osteoarthritis and tennis elbow. More recently, a study in the December 2002 issue of Contemporary Pediatrics urged pediatricians to prescribe acupuncture as a routine treatment for chronic pain or nausea in children.
These findings are welcome news to Dr. Charles Dumont, a pediatric gastroenterologist and director of the Complementary/Alternative Medicine Center at Loyola University Medical Center. “Acupuncture is a therapeutic approach with no adverse effects,” he says. “I would definitely like to see it more widely used, even though there are very few studies that look at the effects of alternative medicine on children.”
Dumont isn’t bothered by this lack of research. “A typical drug takes a company 10 years and $350 million to develop. In alternative medicine, we must rely on the graces of philanthropic organizations to do research,” he says. “Also, most alternative practitioners aren’t researchers, so their studies tend to be flawed. That doesn’t mean the treatment itself is ineffective.”
Dumont uses acupuncture to treat headaches, asthma, sinusitis, ear infections, constipation and chronic abdominal pain, among other conditions. He also is trained in other forms of alternative care, including herbal remedies, mind/body medicine and homeopathy.
Young patients who come to Dumont for acupuncture receive a pleasant surprise: he doesn’t use needles on children. “Even though needles don’t hurt, you can’t always convince a child of that, so we decided to change our technique,” he says. Instead of needles, he places tiny pellets on the child’s hand in the same spots where the needles would have been placed.
Nancy Elliott, a Park Ridge chiropractor, uses needles on children because she thinks the results are slightly better. “I’ll often use an electrical device to stimulate the acupuncture points until we can establish trust,” she says. “I have not had a child yet who has been unable to be needled.”
Elliot describes acupuncture as far from fearsome. “Imagine a relaxing, nurturing treatment performed on a massage table, in a darkened room with soothing music playing,” she says. “Because the needles barely poke the surface of the skin, the procedure is not painful. Some patients are so relaxed they drift off to sleep in the 20 minutes.”
Elliott uses acupuncture for children most often to treat sports injuries, headaches, neck pain, asthma and hyperactivity. Before performing any treatments, she takes a complete medical history and performs a medical examination that looks at posture, vital signs and reflexes.
Elliott stresses that acupuncture needles are far less painful than those used to give shots. “Acupuncture needles are tiny and solid, not large and hollow like hypodermics, which can really tear the skin,” she says. Even more important, they are safe. The Food and Drug Administration regulates acupuncture needles and requires them to be sterile and disposable, so there is virtually no chance of infection.
Parents should not expect acupuncture will be a quick fix. “Remember, the goal of acupuncture is to treat the underlying problem,” says Dumont. “Western medicine is wonderful for controlling symptoms, but wouldn’t it be nice to fix the underlying problem and get off all those medications?”
Fast factus about acupuncture • A personal referral is the best way to find an acupuncturist.
• Acupuncturists are licensed by the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation; check www.dpr.state.il.us. to search for licensed acupuncturists or check for any complaints against your practitioner.
• Fees and treatment regimens vary, so ask about them in advance.
• Few insurance companies cover acupuncture, but it never hurts to ask.Darcy Lewis is a freelance writer who lives in Riverside with her husband and two boys, ages 3 and 8.