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Acupuncture, which is one form of traditional Chinese medicine, is based on a theory of body functioning that involves the flow of energy — known as qi (pronounced chee) — through 14 pathways (called "meridians") in the body. According to the theories of Chinese medicine, disease results from an imbalance or disruption in the flow of energy and in the optimal balance between the opposite forces of "yin" and "yang."

Acupuncture involves stimulating specific locations on the skin, usually by inserting thin, disposable metallic needles into points along the body's meridians to alter the flow of energy. Other methods of stimulating the skin may also be used, including finger pressure (also known as acupressure or shiatsu in Japan), cupping with small heated cups, electroacupuncture with electrically-stimulated needles, and moxibustion with smoldering fibers of an herb called "Asian mugwort." Of approximately 400 acupuncture points on the body, approximately 4 to 12 are stimulated in a single treatment session. It generally takes 6 to 10 sessions to determine if the treatment is going to be beneficial.

Safety & effectiveness

While acupuncture has been used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions, it is only since the 1970s that it has gained popularity in this country. To date, however, there have been no large-scale controlled clinical trials to evaluate the safety and efficacy of acupuncture in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). The few small studies that have been done suggest a possible benefit for fatigue, pain, mood and quality of life, but these findings await confirmation in larger studies.

Acupuncture may provide relief for some MS-related symptoms, including pain, spasticity, numbness and tingling, bladder problems, and depression. There is no evidence, however, that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of MS exacerbations or slow the progression of disability. If you decide to use acupuncture, it’s good to discuss with your healthcare provider first. The treatment should be provided by a licensed acupuncturist.

In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened a 12-member panel to evaluate the numerous studies that had been done of acupuncture in other medical conditions. The panel concluded that acupuncture is a reasonable treatment option following a stroke, and for the management of headaches, facial pain, low back pain and neck pain. Additional studies have suggested that acupuncture might be beneficial for anxiety, depression, dizziness and urinary problems. Since none of the participants in these studies had MS, there is no way to know whether the benefits would be the same in people who have MS.

Side effects & risks

The NIH panel concluded from their review of the studies that acupuncture is a safe, well-tolerated treatment, especially if performed by a well-trained acupuncturist. The use of sterile, disposable needles is essential to avoid any risk of hepatitis or AIDS.

The possible impact of acupuncture on the body's immune system is not clear. Of the numerous studies that have been done in people with cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and AIDS, some suggested that the immune system was enhanced, while others showed an inhibiting effect or no effect at all. Since MS is associated with over-activity of some parts of the immune system, it will be important to clarify this issue before risks and benefits for people with MS can be clearly determined.

Additional resources

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