By: Meghan Meade, L.Ac, MAOM, MS PREP, CYT
Licensed Acupuncturist, NESCA
A Primer on Acupuncture
While the insertion of needles into the skin to provoke a healing response is a hallmark characteristic of acupuncture, the practice actually involves the potential use of a number of other tools and techniques, including cupping, magnets and other non-insertive tools, and moxibustion, the topical application of a heated herbal substance designed to improve circulation and reduce inflammation.
Chinese medicine approaches healing by seeking to restore balance in the body; in so doing, it evaluates the patient as a complex and ever-changing ecosystem, a composite of multiple interrelated and mutually interdependent systems. Though a patient may be seeking relief from anxiety, for example, acupuncture addresses the issue within the context of a wider landscape, as there are often other symptoms and imbalances accompanying a primary imbalance. To that end, treatments will, of course, take into account a patient’s reported symptoms, but they are rarely the main driver of an acupuncturist’s treatment decisions. Acupuncturists additionally rely on observation of patients’ mannerisms, the sound and qualities of their voices, how they carry themselves and perhaps most importantly – the use of palpation techniques to elicit feedback from the body that guide treatment decisions. What an acupuncturist feels in a patient’s pulse or palpates on a patient’s abdomen or acupuncture channels is immensely influential to the diagnostic and treatment processes.
Implicit in this process is the notion that despite the fact that a patient may be seeking relief from a particular condition, that patient is not the same person he is today as he was yesterday, nor the same as he will be tomorrow. The treatment aims to address the nuances of a patient’s presentation within the present moment, guided by the knowledge of the patient’s health history and health objectives for the future.
Put into a biological context, we humans are continually and necessarily affected by our innate biochemistry as well as by our surroundings – both our mental-emotional and physical environments. Chinese medicine does not reduce a condition down to its primary symptoms, but rather considers all symptoms that are overtly or seemingly less-directly related. If the immune system is affected by a virus, for example, because of its cross-talk with the nervous and endocrine systems, all systems will be influenced in some way, shape or form. Though the rest of this article will discuss the ways in which acupuncture can impact specific conditions that commonly affect the pediatric population, it is predicated on this concept of mutual inter-relatedness and interdependence of the body’s systems.
Acupuncture’s Impact on Mental and Emotional Conditions
The incidence of anxiety, depression and behavior disorders has increased markedly in recent years, with data from the CDC indicating that anxiety and depression incidence among children aged 6-17 has grown from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2011-2012. Currently, incidence rates among children aged 3-17 are 7.4% for behavior problems; 7.1% for anxiety; and 3.2% for depression. These afflictions do not occur in isolation and often accompany each other, as 73.8% of children aged 3-17 with diagnosed depression also have anxiety and 47.2% also have behavior problems.
Though we should keep in mind that enhanced awareness of these conditions among children as well as improved assessment and detection in recent years may paint a more dire picture of afflictions that have never in actuality been absent from the pediatric population, the data do represent a critical need to help children in their formative and impressionable years feel more at ease in their bodies as they navigate growth and development.
A dysregulation of the stress response is characteristic of chronic depression, anxiety and behavior disorders. The HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis is responsible in part for regulating the body’s response to stress, whether that stress be mental, emotional or physical. When stress becomes chronic, the ability of the HPA axis to allow for functional communication between the brain and body to keep a person feeling safe and calm becomes impaired, resulting in altered activity of stress hormones, such as cortisol, and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Cortisol is of particular interest in this context, as it not only plays a significant role in the stress response but also modulates immune system activity. When cortisol is elevated due to chronic stress, the body ultimately becomes resistant to it, and the immune system is not kept in check, resulting in a proliferation of inflammation. Acupuncture has demonstrated the capacity to modulate HPA axis function to alleviate stress-related symptoms by restoring the body’s responsiveness to cortisol so that its roles in nervous and immune system function can be maintained appropriately. Dysregulated HPA axis function has been implicated in a number of allergic conditions, such as asthma and dermatitis; somatic conditions, such as Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; psychiatric conditions such as PTSD and depression; and numerous immune and autoimmune diseases, underscoring the importance of maintaining proper function of the HPA axis.
Another component of the body’s response to stress involves the autonomic nervous system, comprised of two branches – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Where the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is responsible for the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response that alerts us to and helps us remove ourselves from danger, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system represents the ‘rest and digest’ state, which we’re biologically designed to occupy the majority of the time. Dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system is thought to underlie a number of prevalent mental, developmental and behavioral disorders, such as depression and anxiety, ADHD, and autism. Acupuncture has been shown to activate and modulate the function of brain regions involved with the autonomic nervous system through a number of mechanisms, including increasing concentrations of endogenous opioids, regulating the function of amino acids, such as GABA and glutamate, and enhancing the activity of neurotrophins, such as nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
While depression and anxiety are highly heterogeneous in their presentations, and are driven by numerous mechanisms in the central and peripheral nervous systems, increases in inflammation are thought to play a correlational – if not at least partly causative – role in their development. Depression and anxiety have been associated with elevated levels of inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), Interleukin 6 (IL-6) and Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), all of which have been shown to be reduced through acupuncture.
Acupuncture and ADHD
ADHD, as defined by the DSM-IV, has a prevalence of 5.9% – 7.1% among children. Characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, ADHD is commonly treated pharmacologically with stimulant medications, such as methylphenidate. While little is known about the long term effects of stimulant medication in this population, and short-to intermediate-term effects include anxiety, depression, weight loss and insomnia, 12% – 64% of parents of children with ADHD have sought out complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies, including acupuncture. In a study of children aged 7-18 diagnosed with ADHD, twice weekly acupuncture treatments for six weeks demonstrated improved attention and memory function among children not taking medication. Another study explored the potential for acupuncture to improve school performance among children aged 7-16; following a series of 10 acupuncture sessions over the course of eight weeks, study subjects showed significant improvements across all three school subjects: math, social studies and Turkish language. Aside from the capacity of acupuncture to improve the stress response through modulation of the HPA axis and autonomic nervous system, acupuncture’s effects on attention and memory and on learning and perception are thought to be mediated in part by its regulation of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, respectively.
Acupuncture and Autism
With prevalence reports ranging from as low as 1 in 500 to as high as 1 in 50, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social communication and interaction, language and behavior. Standard treatment of ASD includes pharmacological therapy and behavioral/educational therapy, though reports from a wide sampling of children with ASD indicate that approximately 88% had utilized CAM therapies to address symptoms such as hyperactivity, inattention, poor sleep and digestive issues. In a study of boys with autism, a treatment regimen of five daily acupuncture sessions over the course of eight weeks demonstrated improvements in speech, self-care and cognition. Significant increases in glucose uptake were shown within the intervention group (vs. control), with improved glucose metabolism in areas of the brain involved in visual, auditory and attentional functioning being thought to underlie the improvements seen in language, attention and cognition. An analysis of 13 studies on acupuncture for autism indicated that the most effective treatment regimen entailed 12 sessions within four weeks, each using a minimum of four acupuncture points, and went on to associate individual acupuncture points with specific effects, from improved language comprehension to enhanced self-care abilities. A meta-analysis of 27 randomized controlled trials found that acupuncture in combination with behavioral and educational interventions (BEI) was more effective than BEI in improving symptoms as determined by a number of evaluation scales (CARS, ABC1, ATEC), suggesting the potential for acupuncture to yield an additive positive effect when utilized with standard of care therapy.
Ultimately, though research supports the use of acupuncture for specific conditions among children and adolescents, it is important to remember that the approach of an acupuncturist is generally not solely protocol-driven as it would be in a research setting. While research findings can and certainly do inform treatment decisions, acupuncturists also rely to a great extent on what is observed and felt during the treatment – they listen to patients’ reported symptoms and experiences, observe how patients speak and carry themselves, palpate acupuncture channels and reflex areas, and feel the pulse to determine imbalances in the body. In this way, Western and Eastern science and medicine are invited to work together to treat imbalances in an informed, patient-centric, holistic way.
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About the Author
Meghan Meade is a licensed acupuncturist practicing part-time at NESCA.
Having suffered from anxiety, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances and exercise-induced repetitive stress injuries throughout her adolescence and twenties, Meghan first sought out acupuncture as a last ditch effort to salvage some semblance of health and sanity during a particularly stressful period in her life. It worked. Remarkably well. So palpable was the influence of acupuncture on her well being that she was compelled to leave a career in advertising to study Chinese medicine so that she could help others benefit from its effects.
Meghan earned her masters degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine from the New England School of Acupuncture at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) and a masters degree in Pain Research, Education and Policy from Tufts University Medical School. She is licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Medicine and is a Diplomate of Oriental Medicine, certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).
In her clinical practice, Meghan integrates both Eastern and Western perspectives to provide treatments unique to each patient’s needs and endeavors to empower patients to move forward on their paths to not just feeling good, but feeling like their true selves. In addition to her work as a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, Meghan serves as adjunct faculty at MCPHS and is a certified yoga teacher.
To learn even more about Meghan and acupuncture, visit her alternate web site or read her blog: https://meghanmeadeacu.com/. Meghan is practicing at NESCA during the following hours. Appointments at NESCA can be booked by reaching out to me directly at email@example.com.
Monday: 10am – 6pm
Thursday: 9am – 7pm
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.