At age 17, Victoria Rust came down with pancreatitis, suffering waves of terrible pain that kept her hospitalized for much of last year.
When the only medicine that was helping her caused stomach bleeding and had to be stopped, a doctor at Children’s National Medical Center suggested an unconventional treatment: acupuncture.
Rust and her mother agreed to let a physician at Children’s Hospital place thin needles into her stomach and other spots; within minutes, the West Virginia high school student felt much better.
I was mellowed, she said. The pain didn’t come. The needles turned out to be no big deal.
Children and needles may seem an unusual pairing, but doctors say a growing number of families are choosing acupuncture, in which thin needles are inserted into specific points on the body and manipulated by hand or with electrical stimulation with the goal of restoring and maintaining health.
It’s often performed when standard medicines or therapies don’t work, have too many side effects or need a boost.
Acupuncture is increasingly being prescribed and performed by physicians in such traditional Western hospital settings as Children’s. Last year, an analysis in the journal Pediatrics concluded that acupuncture was safe for kids when performed by appropriately trained practitioners.
Officials at pediatric hospitals estimate that at least a third of U.S. pain centers for children offer acupuncture alongside traditional treatments. The federal government’s National Health Interview Survey, which last asked about acupuncture in 2007, estimated that about 150,000 children were receiving the needle treatment annually for conditions such as pain, migraine and anxiety.
People will often bring it up before I bring it up, said Jennifer Anderson, an anesthesiologist at Children’s who is also a licensed acupuncturist.
I often treat patients with chronic issues such as nausea and abdominal pain. It’s very helpful.
The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges that more young patients are undergoing acupuncture and other alternative therapies, and an article in its journal, Pediatrics, says a growing number of pediatric generalists and subspecialists are offering these services.
It also urges doctors to seek information on such practices when families express interest, evaluate them on their scientific merits and pass information to parents.
Anderson and other doctors said acupuncture is an important and safe adjunct to traditional treatments for children. A 2008 review of studies published in the Journal of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology cited evidence that acupuncture is effective for preventing nausea after surgery in children and for alleviating pain
Anderson said she often does two to three treatments a week at first on a child, eventually tapering visits to once a month. Stephen Cowan, a New York pediatrician who is also a certified medical acupuncturist, said Western medicine is great for acute problems that often afflict kids, such as ear infections. But he said acupuncture can be extremely helpful for such chronic or difficult-to-treat problems as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and asthma.
Acupucturists say needles are the biggest concern among parents and children.
Acupuncturists often develop ways to ease children’s fears about the needles. It’s all in the way it’s presented to a kid, Cowan said.