Using acupuncture during surgery

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
September 22, 2008 1:26:59 PM PDT
For centuries, acupuncture has been used for its pain-relieving benefits. Now, doctors are using the therapy in a setting where pain management is crucial - during surgery. Lauren Hennessey was being prepped for surgery. And along with drugs to numb the pain, she got acupuncture.

Duke University anesthesiologist Dr. T.J. Gan says acupuncture sparks the release of endorphins and other natural pain killers in the body, making pain medication work more effectively.

"We have found that by using acupuncture, you can potentially reduce the amount of painkillers that you otherwise would need to use during surgery, as well as in some studies suggest that acupuncture can also reduce the amount of anesthetic that you need to provide for the patients," he said.

And fewer drugs mean fewer side effects.

"I never vomited," Hennessey said. "I was nauseous for very shortly and my pain was very minimal."

Dr. Gan says the pain relieving benefits of pre-op acupuncture may last far longer than the effects of any drugs.

"Not only does it benefit the patient immediately post-operatively, there is also increasing evidence to suggest that this will prevent longer-term pain problems," he said.

But even with the growing body of evidence of its benefits, Dr. Gan says acupuncture should only be used as a complement to traditional anesthesia.

"For most of the conditions, I think we still need powerful drugs to control pain," he said. "But I think acupuncture would be a very useful addition to that regimen."

Dr. Gan says he targets both universal and localized acupuncture points in patients, depending on the part of body that will be affected by the surgery. Acupuncture for surgery pain is also used at Yale, Stanford and Massachusetts General, among others.