Acupuncture has been popular since ancient times for a reason: it makes people feel better. Could it also make our kids feel better?
When my son was 18 month old, he had a severe cough and high fever. My instinct lead me to a family practitioner acupuncturist. When we arrived, she asked questions, took his vitals, and started her treatment, which took only a few minutes. Immediately after the treatment, his temperature started to drop. In this short amount of time, he felt much better, and so did I. She sent us home with Chinese herbal tinctures and showed me acupressure points to ease his cough and fever. She was available by text in case we needed to change the dosing based on his symptoms over the next few days.
“Most people feel that East Asian medicine is inferior, or that the healing process is too slow,” said Frances Goodwin, who’s a board certified acupuncturist and Chinese Herbal Medicine. “Children are precious and the fear that something will harm them is great, so most Americans want the immediate result of diagnosis, treatment and resolution.”
Though medical professionals and researchers don’t fully understand how acupuncture works, there is scientific evidence that targeted needle stimulation can help with many different conditions — from depression and anxiety, to insomnia and pain, and even infertility. And when it comes to babies and children, research has shown that acupuncture can help with colic, eczema and more.
But getting your little one pricked with tiny needles can seem pretty spooky, so is it really worth it? I cleared up some concerns and questions around the practice. Here’s what you should know about pediatric acupuncture.
1. What is pediatric acupuncture all about? Whether it is for adults or children, the premise of East Asian medicine is to bring the body into balance, Goodwin explained — “To fill what is empty and to reduce what is overflowing.” The techniques employed to achieve this include not only acupuncture, but also Tui Na (a type of massage), herbs, diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Specifically, acupuncture is a tool that’s designed to improve your body’s energetic functions, which can then facilitate a biochemical response to help alleviate symptoms.
2. What are the benefits of pediatric acupuncture? A lot of the disorders that are common to children can be successfully treated. According to Goodwin, those include: allergies, common viral conditions, pink eye, sports sprains, eczema, treatment around immunizations, Global Developmental Delays, ADD, ADHD(although more severe ADHD is referred to a specialist in that area), mono, the flu, Expressive Language Delay (working in an integrative manner), failure to thrive, measles, mumps, chicken pox, fifth disease, strep throat, and ear infections.
3. How does pediatric acupuncture work? If you’ve done acupuncture on yourself, you’re probably wondering how a toddler or even an older child would sit still long enough for the needles to work their magic. Well, they don’t, really… Meridians, which are a set of non-physical pathways in the body and which are used as roadmaps for acupuncture treatments, are not fully developed in children under the age of about 7 years. So pediatric acupuncturists usually insert the needles and quickly take them out before performing Tui Na. Infants only get the Tui Na massage.
Small children are most often held on their parents’ laps, and nursing children are often on the breast. Older children may have the acupuncture instruments retained one minute per year of age. It all depends on the child, the parents, and the need addressed at any given visit. Some conditions take only one visit and others require more.
4. How can you help your child get over the fear of needles? Most of the fear for children is around the idea of needles. But unlike injectable needles for vaccines, acupuncture needles are not vectors for medication, so they are very thin. Some people don’t even feel acupuncture needles, but this varies person to person. So you can show them how thin the needles are, or you can even let them watch acupuncture being performed on you.
My son cried a lot the first time I took him to get a treatment, though it seemed more in protest. When I asked her how he compared to her other patients, she said, “Each child and family are different. Some children never cry, some cry the entire time, some come into the office, tell me where they want the needles and pick out their Tui Na tool. I find that the fear or discomfort level of the parents often is reflected in the child.”
We’ve come a long way since our first pediatric acupuncture treatment. My son has become very comfortable after a handful of visits. He associates feeling well with doing acupuncture, so at the first sign of a cough, he tells me, “I need to see Frances.”
5. How can you use acupuncture as an adjunct to pediatric care? Using pediatric acupuncture doesn’t mean that you should completely forego your regular care. In fact, you can use both Eastern Asian Medicine and conventional pediatric care, and many pediatricians welcome acupuncture to help with certain conditions.
New York City-based pediatrician Katie Malbon MD said, “I really believe it has a place, and I would certainly advocate it for many conditions. I currently work with teenagers with chronic pain syndromes, and I would completely recommend it for them and other chronic conditions. I love the use of Eastern medicine in parallel with Western.”
Goodwin says she always refers to or collaborates with pediatricians and Physical and Occupational Therapists. “This collaboration can help to prevent a delayed or missed diagnosis of a serious health issue, such as cancer, by any healthcare professional,” Goodwin said. “When we all work together, recognize each other strengths and weakness, then the patient receives the best care.”