Acupuncture is widely acclaimed for relieving pain. However, many people would rather endure the crushing pain of migraine headaches than face their fear of needles. Nicholas C. Steadman, L.Ac., who practices acupuncture in New York City, claims to have erased that barrier with the use of cold laser acupuncture.
"Regular acupuncture is virtually painless, but there is still a needle," Steadman, who uses it on his patients with pain and anxiety, said of the new method. "But with laser acupuncture, the patient doesn't feel a thing."
Cold laser, or low-level laser, is a promising new technology already widely used by elite athletic teams and militaries such as the US Olympic team and the British Army for pain relief and accelerated healing of muscle injuries. In 2002 the FDA approved a cold laser device for the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome, and there are currently several companies cleared by the FDA to market cold lasers in the US for the treatment of pain and muscle spasm.
Does cold laser really stimulate acupuncture points?
Austrian and German scientists, reporting in the journal Medical Acupuncture asked this question, using fMRI on 231 healthy volunteers to compare the cerebral effects of both forms of acupuncture. Almost identical brain stimulation patterns and physiological responses were observed for both needle and laser acupuncture for the points tested.
Has laser acupuncture been proven effective?
"In some ways, the evidence may be even better than for regular acupuncture," Steadman said, "The greatest thing about cold laser acupuncture research is that the patient can't tell if the laser is on or not, which allows for clean double-blind placebo controlled studies." Controlling for placebo is a notoriously difficult problem with needle acupuncture because "sham acupuncture" still involves the insertion of needles, causing physiological effects beyond mere placebo.
A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial concluded that "laser acupuncture can provide a significant benefit for children with headaches with active laser treatment being clearly more effective than placebo laser treatment" -Pain, July 2008
Bottom line: There can be gain - without pain.