Acupuncture may be a safe and effective adjunctive treatment for chronic pain in children, according to a new study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Pediatric patients with chronic pain who underwent eight sessions of acupuncture treatment experienced a significant reduction in pain as well as an increase in emotional health.
“The results of this study suggest that acupuncture can have a profound positive impact on the health and well-being of children who experience the disabling effects of chronic pain,” said researcher Angela Johnson, M.P.H., a practitioner of Chinese medicine at Rush’s Cancer Integrative Medicine Program who holds a master’s degree in traditional Oriental medicine.
Treating children with chronic pain has long been a complex dilemma. Since children are still growing and developing, there is a fear of causing long-term negative effects. Data about the safety and efficacy of therapeutic options for children is still limited.
Chronic pain is pain that lasts for weeks, months, or even years, and is estimated to affect 20 to 35 percent of children under age 18 worldwide. Conditions that can cause chronic pain in children include headaches, abdominal pain, back pain, musculoskeletal pain, scoliosis, cancer, and leukemia.
“Effective treatment of pain can be particularly difficult because it’s subjective; but with children, it is increasingly difficult because a child may not be able to communicate effectively depending on the age and accurate recognition of pain,” Johnson said.
“While acupuncture has been shown to reduce pain in adults, there is very little data on whether it’s effective in children. This study looked at the effect of acupuncture in children directly, rather than examining data collected from adults. This focus is especially important, since children experience pain in different ways than adults.”
The study involved 55 children and adolescents aged seven to 20 who were experiencing chronic pain conditions. Each patient received up to eight individually tailored acupuncture treatments at Rush lasting 30 minutes.
All patients reported significant and progressive declines across all levels of pain throughout the eight-session treatment, with stronger pain reductions during early treatment. Patients also reported substantial pain reductions from the start to the end of each session.
Additionally, the participants reported significant reductions in health, emotional, social, and educational problems. These findings were corroborated by similar reductions in parent-reported observations of the same issues.
“Acupuncture provides an amazing alternative to chronic pain medication. This is especially true for patients who may have to cope with pain for most of their life, including those who have sickle cell anemia and after-effects of cancer. In addition it helps with anxiety and depression,” said Paul Kent, M.D., co-principal investigator of the study and pediatric oncologist at Rush.
This study contributes to the minimal data on the use of acupuncture in a pediatric population, and supports acupuncture as an effective strategy for managing chronic pain.
Johnson hopes to expand her research to larger groups of children in order to better understand how acupuncture relieves their chronic pain.
“Like any good doctors, we want to reduce children’s suffering,” she said, “and we hope that this study will be a first step in our being able to do more for these kids.”
The findings are published in the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies.