All pharmaceuticals all have side effects, without exception. And while no one likes taking medicine, sometimes it’s necessary. Some side effects are negligible and barely noticeable. Medications may be so effective at treating the diseased state that any aftereffects are completely outshined by their helpfulness. Thyroid drugs come to mind- in people with hyper or hypo-thyroid disorders (that is, when the thyroid is functioning either above or below normal levels), the symptoms are awful and systemic. Any side effect of thyroid meds would probably go unnoticed because patients feel so much better while taking them. However, what about blood pressure medication? Antibiotics? Chemotherapy? The covid vaccine? These pharmaceuticals are life changing and often lifesaving, as we have seen… but the reactions may vary from mild to severe, and significantly compromise quality of life. In these cases, I believe acupuncture offers a unique benefit.
How can acupuncture ameliorate the side effects of medication, and when is it appropriate?
The principles of Chinese medicine describe symptoms as manifestations of imbalance. And while pharmaceuticals are prescribed to manage or cure disease, they can throw a patient into a different imbalance altogether. Chemotherapy, for instance, targets cancer cells, but it also kills good, healthy cells and disrupts the flow of qi and blood in the body and introduces toxins to the internal environment. There are different types of chemo, but generally, those who take it suffer from fatigue and debility, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hot flashes… Sound awful enough? In cases like these, the drug administration should not be interrupted since it is providing life-saving therapy; but there are times when the patient cannot endure the prescription because of the negative aftereffects. This is precisely where acupuncture can help: by targeting the present state of disharmony and applying the appropriate acupuncture protocol, the patient may feel better, more balanced and resilient, and strong enough to undergo out the rest of the prescribed chemotherapy.
Another example is antibiotic therapy. These drugs eradicate infection and are super effective at what they do. But they often instigate bowel issues because they kill both good and bad bacteria and disrupt the microbiome. Many people experience diarrhea or other such issues amidst the course of a prescription. In Chinese medicine, antibiotic drugs are thought to have “cold” properties that injure the spleen/stomach and thereby negatively impact healthy digestion and absorption. Treating this presentation of symptoms by strengthening the spleen/stomach by needling pertinent acupuncture points, patients often feel an improvement in bowel function and can finish the prescription for their initial disease. (I would also recommend dietary changes to help the spleen/stomach and probiotics in cases like this.)
These are just some of the types of prescriptions for which patients seek side-effect relief:
Anti-inflammatories or steroids
If you are taking a medication that you believe is causing bothersome side effects, consider an alternative therapy like acupuncture to help mitigate these symptoms. It might make the experience much more tolerable.