Ask the Expert: Rachel Waldman on Acupuncture

Rachel WaldmanThe Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center features a team of board-certified physicians, licensed massage therapists, acupuncturists, psychotherapists and nutritionists who share a goal of working to treat the whole person.

Integrative medicine combines the best of biomedicine with a broader understanding of the nature of illness, healing and wellness. It makes use of all appropriate therapeutic approaches and evidence-based modalities to achieve optimal health and healing.

Rachel Waldman, an acupuncturist at the Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, provides insight on receiving acupuncture treatments, as well as recent developments in the fields of acupuncture and integrative medicine.

Waldman and her team are currently accepting patients seeking acupuncture treatment. To learn more about acupuncture and other resources available through the Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, visit hopkinsmedicine.org/integrativemed or call 410-828-3585.

How do you know if you should seek acupuncture treatment?

Acupuncture can be beneficial for a wide range of conditions but isn’t necessarily right for everyone. The best way to determine if acupuncture treatment can help you reach your health goals is to talk to your doctor or consult a licensed acupuncturist. They can evaluate your individual needs and make the appropriate recommendations. Generally speaking, acupuncture is most effective for chronic conditions that impact a person’s quality of life, such as chronic pain, digestive disorders, infertility, arthritis, migraines, insomnia and hot flashes.

Won’t acupuncture hurt?

No, acupuncture needles are tiny—much thinner than a human hair. They are about 10 times smaller than a typical hypodermic needle. They’re so thin, in fact, that they are actually quite flexible. Many patients say they don’t even feel when the needle is inserted. The effect of a treatment is—counterintuitively, perhaps—quite relaxing; some patients even fall asleep during sessions.

How many treatments will it take to work?

The number of treatments required to achieve a desired outcome varies widely, just like it does with any kind of medicine. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But it's important to understand that the effect of acupuncture is cumulative—kind of like exercise. You wouldn’t go to the gym once and expect to see dramatic changes in your body. Similarly, your current of state of health and your health goals will determine the frequency and number of sessions required to achieve the desired effect.

Does acupuncture work for everyone?

Acupuncture is associated with improved outcomes for a variety of conditions, but it isn’t magic—it is a medical modality, and it has strengths and limitations. Nothing, not even antibiotics, work for everyone all of the time. But acupuncture is often very successful at reducing pain, accelerating healing and improving quality of life for patients. Start by talking to your doctor or consult a licensed acupuncturist to see if acupuncture would be a good choice for you.

What are some tips on preparing for an acupuncture treatment?

Make sure that you’ve had something to eat and are well hydrated. I also recommend avoiding caffeine and alcohol before and after treatment. If possible, don't schedule anything strenuous for at least a few hours following treatment. On the initial visit, patients should bring a complete list of their medications, including prescription drugs, vitamins and supplements, along with their dosages and any relevant health history like recent lab results, MRI or X-ray reports.

Are there any side effects?

Adverse effects (side effects) of acupuncture are extremely rare when performed by a well-trained, licensed acupuncturist. Actually, one of the things I like most about practicing acupuncture is that patients often experience so many side benefits. It is very common for sleep, digestion, mood or energy to improve along with whatever the chief complaint happens to be. This is the essence of integrative, holistic medicine.

What are some recent developments in the fields of acupuncture and integrative medicine?

In 2014, the Joint Commission published revisions to pain management standards that included the statement that care strategies should reflect a patient-centered approach and include nonpharmacologic interventions like acupuncture and massage.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health changed the name of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. It may seem like a minor difference, but the new name more accurately reflects the agency’s mission and the fact that people aren’t using therapies like acupuncture as an alternative to conventional care. They are using it in conjunction with conventional care, and we are seeing improved outcomes and higher levels of patient satisfaction as a result.

There is also a lot of fascinating clinical research going on at top institutions nationwide exploring possible mechanisms of action of acupuncture. Some of the most exciting ideas are moving way past the endorphin and gate control theories, instead looking at patterns of embryological growth and development to understand how acupuncture works. Researchers are also using functional MRIs to study brain activity when acupoints are stimulated, and we are finding some startlingly accurate correspondences with the “traditional” indications/actions of the points.

 

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