Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese technique that uses thin, metallic needles to penetrate the skin at strategic points on the body called acupuncture points. The acupuncture practitioner manipulates these needles using specific movements or electrical stimulation. Stimulating the nerves at these strategic points may lead to overall wellness.
How does acupuncture work?
According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a method to balance the “life force” or energy flow in the body known as “Qi”. Qi is believed to flow through pathways called meridians in the body. The disruption of Qi is believed to cause disease. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, it is believed that proper energy flow can be restored.
Western medicine considers acupuncture points as places for nerve, muscle, and connective tissue stimulation, which can help boost the body’s natural painkillers, known as endorphins.
How could acupuncture help with endometriosis pain?
Endometriosis is a debilitating disease characterized by the growth of endometrial-like tissue outside the uterus. This can lead to several symptoms such as chronic pelvic pain, menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea), and pain during sex (dyspareunia). Apart from laparoscopic deep excision surgery, the gold standard treatment for endometriosis, complementary therapies such as acupuncture are part of an integrated approach for pain management.
Research has shown that acupuncture can be an effective treatment alone or in combination with conventional therapies for several conditions including menstrual cramps, headaches, lower back pain, and even infertility. Acupuncture offers a non-pharmacological complementary strategy that can alleviate pain. Researchers think that acupuncture inhibits pain signals and deactivates brain areas that play a role in pain.
Some researchers also hypothesized that acupuncture can help modulate endometriosis-related pain by functioning as an analgesic and increasing pain thresholds. It may also reduce the levels of serum estradiol that promote endometrial growth.
Are there studies demonstrating the effectiveness of acupuncture for endometriosis?
The use of acupuncture to manage pain is still controversial. There aren’t many randomized clinical trials that evaluated the efficacy of acupuncture in reducing endometriosis-related pain. While some studies suggest it may be effective, others say there isn’t enough clinical data.
A 2008 study in 18 adolescents and young women, ages 13 to 22 showed that Japanese-style acupuncture can be effective in treating endometriosis-related pain.
A 2017 systematic review of 10 randomized clinical trials involving 589 patients showed that acupuncture can alleviate dysmenorrhea and reduce the levels of CA-125 protein in the blood. CA-125 is a marker that is found in the blood that may be elevated in those with endometriosis.
An interventional, multicenter, randomized, and controlled clinical trial (NCT03125304) that started in 2017 enrolled 106 participants in China to evaluate the safety and efficacy of acupuncture in treating endometriosis-related pain. The study aims to investigate whether acupuncture improves pelvic pain– including dysmenorrhea, intermenstrual pain, and dyspareunia, as well as quality of life, physical and emotional wellbeing, and overall satisfaction.
A 2018 systematic review of the literature and meta-analysis demonstrated that complementary interventions such as acupuncture, exercise, electrotherapy, and yoga led to positive effects in treating endometriosis symptoms. Acupuncture showed significantly improved outcomes compared to the other therapies.
A single case study in 2019 reported the effects of Traditional Chinese Medicine in a 43-year old woman with fibroids and endometriosis. The results indicated some positive effects on pain management over a six-month period as assessed by the pain quality assessment scale.
How to prepare for acupuncture therapy?
There is no special preparation necessary for acupuncture. However, it is important to first discuss your plans with your healthcare provider. They can give you insights on whether or not the therapy can be of any benefit. It is also important to let your acupuncturist know of any ongoing therapies, dietary supplements, pregnancy, bleeding disorders, pacemakers, or breast implants, for a more accurate assessment.
Are there any risks?
Not everyone may be a good candidate for acupuncture. However, the risks of the therapy itself are quite low as long as a qualified practitioner applies it. The risk of infection is minimal as long as they use sterile disposable needles. The needles are very thin and rarely cause discomfort. You may feel a mild aching sensation when the needle reaches the necessary depth.
What to expect during acupunture?
Acupuncture therapy is individualized for each patient. A qualified acupuncture practitioner may first perform an initial hour-long examination of parts of your body where you feel the pain. They may also assess the shape, color, and coating of your tongue, the color of your face, and the strength of your pulse. The number of sessions varies depending on the severity of your condition. They may range from one to two sessions to six to eight sessions.
During the procedure, the acupuncturist will inform you of the treatment plan and sites for needle insertion. They will insert the needles at various strategic points and depths. The practitioner may manipulate or twirl the inserted needles or apply heat or mild electrical pulses. Usually, they will keep the needles in place for about 10 to 20 minutes before removing them. Removal of needles usually does not cause any discomfort.
What are some of the things I should keep in mind before starting?
It is important to discuss your medical history with your healthcare provider before deciding to go for acupuncture. Also, remember that acupuncture cannot be a diagnostic tool.
Your healthcare provider could also refer you to a licensed or certified acupuncturist. There is no need for an acupuncturist to be a doctor. However, you should seek someone who is officially licensed to do the therapy. The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (AAMA) can be a good place to find licensed practitioners.
It is also important to consider the duration and costs involved beforehand. Remember to check with your insurance provider whether your insurance plans cover the cost of undergoing acupuncture therapy.