Acupuncture and Neuropathy

Nerve pain or neuropathy is the result of damaged or destroyed nerve cells which disrupts the way that sensations are interpreted by the brain as well as how the brain directs parts of the body. Neuropathy is fairly common, especially among older people, with some estimates suggesting that 25 to 30 percent of all Americans will experience this condition at some point in their lives. Among diabetics, this rises to 60 to 70 percent.

In recent years, more physicians have begun recommending that their neuropathy patients try acupuncture to help relieve pain. For centuries, Eastern medicine has used acupuncture to remedy pain, and modern medical practitioners have been investigating this practice with increasing seriousness. Traditionally, acupuncture was believed to promote the flow of energy throughout the body, but the modern medical community believes that inserting tiny needles into the body stimulates key nerves and promotes blood circulation.

Acupuncture Treatments

 To most people, the concept of acupuncture ranges from somewhat uncomfortable to outright terrifying. For many people who are afraid of needles, the idea of inserting several into various parts of the body appears barbaric, merely a step away from a primitive medicinal dance.

The reality, however, is quite clinical and, in many cases, therapeutically effective. During the procedure, the patient is fully conscious while very thin needles are inserted to a depth of a few millimeters in various points on the body. Most people feel little or no pain, although in some people there may be some soreness.

In the United States, almost 3 million people have tried acupuncture for many conditions including lower back pain, headaches and fibromyalgia. There is mounting evidence that acupuncture has a significant effect on pain symptoms, although many medical authorities claim that more research needs to be conducted to rule out the placebo effect (an effect in which a therapy works only because the patient believes it will).

Supporters of acupuncture believe that placing the needles in specific pressure points promotes production of natural pain killers called endorphins as well as increase blood flow to heal damaged nerve cells. A study performed in 2007 reported that more neuropathy patients who underwent acupuncture experienced pain relief than patients who only received traditional pain care.

How to Prepare for an Acupuncture Session

You may be somewhat apprehensive about getting an acupuncture treatment, but, in general, it is a simple, easy procedure.  You should take some time to find a reputable acupuncturist in your area. Many acupuncture clinics can be found online along with reviews from prior patients, but you may also ask around personally. 

Before you make an appointment, you should also verify that the acupuncturist is qualified.  Most states have licensing procedure for acupuncturists, so you should find out if they are licensed by visiting the state’s professional licensure board.

Finally, discuss the treatment with the practitioner.  You should inquire as to what the procedure will include, their success rates with similar patients, how often you will need to repeat the procedure and the cost of the sessions.  You may also want to ask if your insurance is likely to cover the therapy.

Potential Risks with Acupuncture

Acupuncture is generally considered to be quite safe which is why more physicians are recommending it to their neuropathy patients. There are some minor risks associated with this treatment including

  • Minor pain or bruising—a small number of patients may experience some minor discomfort or bruising at the needle insertion site.
  • Bleeding—some people may bleed lightly if the needle is inserted too deeply.  People with hemophilia or on blood thinner medications should discuss their condition with a physician before trying acupuncture.
  • Injury—in a few number of cases, there has been damage to musculature or internal organs when a needle has been inserted too far.
  • Infection—any legitimate acupuncturist will use sterile needles, but there may be an elevated risk of infection if the needles are unsterilized or reused.
  • Premature birth—acupuncture has been known to trigger early labor in some pregnant women. If you are pregnant, discuss the risks of acupuncture with your doctor beforehand.
  • Pacemaker disruption—some kinds of acupuncture involve an application of minor electrical pulses that can interfere with pacemaker operation.

It is important to only obtain treatments from a licensed acupuncturist, preferably one with many years of experience so that any potential risks can be kept to a minimum. You should also discuss the possibility of acupuncture treatments with your doctor who may have important advice.

If you experience pain or other irregular symptoms following an acupuncture session, seek out medical care as soon as possible.

Effectiveness of Acupuncture for Nerve Pain

There is continuing debate about the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating nerve pain primarily because there have only been a few rigorous scientific studies. Although there has been growing support for acupuncture in the mainstream medical community, this is mostly due to the low risks involved rather than any convincing evidence of acupuncture’s efficacy.

One review study published in 2017 examined six scientific reports that involved 462 neuropathy patients. Unfortunately, the studies did not utilize stringent research protocols that would have eliminated patient or researcher bias from the results. Most of the studies could not produce conclusive evidence that acupuncture provided significant pain relief. Ultimately, the study reviewers concluded that the studies were unreliable and more research is necessary.

This kind of inconclusive study may not be helpful when deciding if acupuncture is a viable pain therapy for you, but, at least, it shouldn’t discourage you from trying it out.  In general, unless you have a prohibitive condition like a phobia of needles, a bleeding condition or pregnancy, acupuncture should be safe to try out. 

If you rely on anecdotal evidence, which is perhaps more reliable at this point, you will find that acupuncture is effective pain relief for some people and ineffective for others. However, you should keep in mind that acupuncture has been used to treat many kinds of pain for centuries and in many cultures.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.