New Study on Acupuncture for Pain Management in Children Shows Promise

Kids may be famously needle-shy but scientists have shown that fear can be overcome and that acupuncture used in conjuction with Western medicine, can be beneficial for a variety of pediatric conditions.

Acupuncture is a 3,000 year-old traditional Chinese medical practice performed by inserting needles into the body at specific sites. The needles are hair-thin and the sites connect to Qi (pronounced “chee”) points, releasing blocked energy.

A good explanation of what needle insertion does, according to Lonnie Zeltzer, MD, Director of the Pediatric Pain Program at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, is that it “affects neuro-chemical signals, releasing muscle tension, thus restoring balance and eliminating symptoms in a body that has gotten out of balance.”  


New study shows promise for acupuncture in pediatric medicine.

New Study on Acupuncture

Conducted at an integrative medicine center based in Chicago, Illinois, the study looked at 55 children presenting with musculoskeletal pain problems ranging from sports injuries to migraines and from Crohn’s disease to leukemia.  At the conclusion of the study the patients reported “significant reductions in health, emotional, social, and educational problems.” These findings were corroborated by parental reports.   

In the United States, more than one-third of pain treatment centers provide acupuncture as a therapy.  But its use in children is relatively new, according to Dr. Zeltzer. “It had been used rarely in the treatment of children but has proven successful in treating chronic pain and other conditions in children without side effects” she said, adding, “I think the culture is now more accepting of it.”

According to James Dowden, Executive Director of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, there are approximately 27,000 acupuncture practitioners in the US. Dowden notes this is a conservative estimate and does not include podiatrists and chiropractors who may not have a license but do have training but—if the state they live in permits it—also practice acupuncture. (His figure was derived by adding the number of medical doctors with training in acupuncture—9,000—to the number of licensed acupuncturist, which currently stands at 18,000.)

Fear of Needles

As to kids’ fear of needles, “It’s all in the way you approach the child,” according to physical therapist and acupuncturist, Jason Maier, PhD. “You always want the parent involved. Never see a child alone.” Dr. Maier says that younger children, from newborn to about 18 months don’t have a natural fear of needles.  He lets toddlers play with certain tools and will occasionally demonstrate the needle insertion on himself or a parent.  “To relax kids, we sometimes use parents as guinea pigs to demonstrate the painless nature of the procedure.”  If it is done correctly, Dr. Maier says, the needle insertion should feel “like a tap on the skin.”

Michael Waterhouse, MA, LAc  tells kids that “the pain in your tummy is way worse than needles.” He also tells them “it’s surprising how pleasant it is. It makes all the chemicals in your brain feel good.”

Acupuncture and Medication

Most pediatricians who use acupuncture label the treatment as a “complementary therapy” and integrate it with Western medical treatments. Dr. Zeltzer, who is also the author with her husband Paul Zeltzer, MD, of Pain in Children and Young Adults, The Journey Back to Normal, points out that adding acupuncture sessions to antihistamine treatments, for example, can “achieve comparable results to higher doses of the medication alone, while decreasing side effects such as drowsiness.”

Acupuncture and Western Medicine

“I don’t treat any child who isn’t already under the care of a Western physician or nurse practitioner,” Dr. Maier said, adding that he would never treat a child with a high fever who hadn’t seen a physician “because you have to know what you’re treating; once the patient has seen a doctor, you can rule out conditions like sinus infections or a brain tumor.”

Dr. Zeltzer says she has used acupuncture to treat kids with migraines to prevent associated conditions. Children will “get related muscle spasms, so I’d refer them to acupuncture for relief of those secondary symptoms.” She points out that some conditions lend themselves particularly well to acupuncture because they’re caused by an electrical signal imbalance: irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, nausea and vomiting top the list.

Dr. Zeltzer summed it up this way: “While acupuncture doesn’t reverse the pathology of disease, it has proven tremendously helpful in managing illness.”

For more information about acupuncture or to find a licensed practitioner in your area, consult the National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. It's important to note that very few acupuncturists practice only on children.

Updated on: 04/11/16