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Government Panel Endorses Acupuncture

In a landmark decision, a panel of scientists at the National Institutes of Health announced that evidence clearly shows acupuncture to be an effective, safe form of treatment for certain medical conditions. The report, issued in November 1997, found that acupuncture was particularly effective in treating nausea and pain; it also concluded that acupuncture may be an acceptable alternative treatment for a long list of other conditions including (but not limited to) addiction, post-stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, and asthma.

Although this list represents only a fraction of the conditions routinely and effectively treated by acupuncturists in the U.S. and throughout the world, the panel's report is nevertheless historic, in that it is the first time a U.S. government health agency has officially endorsed any "alternative" form of medicine. In formally recognizing acupuncture, the United States joins a growing number of governments and international agencies, including the World Health Organization, which recommend it as an effective and safe treatment for a variety of conditions. "There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture's value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value," the panel concurred at the conclusion of the 2 1/2 day conference which was organized to evaluate the scientific and medical data on the uses, risks, and benefits of acupuncture. They also urged Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance companies to begin paying for acupuncture treatments.

Dr. Marjorie Bowman, NIH panel member and the chairwoman of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Family Practice and Community Medicine, suggested that acupuncture now be considered a treatment option that doctors and patients discuss openly. Although an estimated one million or more Americans are believed to be relying on acupuncture for the treatment of a wide range of conditions, mainstream medicine has continued to eye it warily. This is in part due to a lack of rigorous research trials, as well as the suspicion that much of acupuncture's effect may stem from an illusory "placebo effect," – the notion that a person's faith in the treatment may promote healing all by itself. The panel, however, rejected such an interpretation outright, stating that "considerable evidence supports the claim that [opium-like] peptides are released during acupuncture, and that the analgesic effects of acupuncture are at least partially explained by this process."

“This is a pretty dramatic finding," said Dr. David Ramsey, president of the University of Maryland Medical Center, who was the chairman of the NIH panel and initially an acupuncture skeptic. "Acupuncture has fewer side effects and is less invasive than many of the other things we do in conventional Western medicine. It's time to take it seriously." The conference was sponsored by the NIH's Office of Alternative Medicine, the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal & Skin Diseases, the National Institute of Dental Research, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health.

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