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When Does Acupuncture Help Children? 

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Many Vermonters take a holistic approach to maintaining their health and wellness. Some seek out acupuncture for themselves and their families as an alternative or complement to conventional Western medical treatments.

Katina Martin is a licensed naturopathic doctor, midwife and acupuncturist with Vermont Natural Family Health in Salisbury and Burlington. Martin, who's been practicing in Vermont since 2006, treats children and adults with natural remedies, such as Chinese herbs, rather than conventional pharmaceuticals. She spoke to Kids VT about the many health benefits that acupuncture can provide to children. (Families should consult their insurance providers to find out whether they cover acupuncture. Some plans, including Dr. Dynasaur, do not.)

KIDS VT: How does acupuncture work?

KATINA MARTIN: Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine modality that's been used for thousands of years. It involves inserting very thin needles into precise points along channels in the body, which are thought to stimulate healing and restore function. In this system of medicine, there are meridians of invisible energy pathways that run throughout the body. In good health, our qi (pronounced "chee"), or life energy force, should flow freely along these meridians. If there's a blockage in the smooth flow of that qi, then it's thought to cause illness and pain. I like to use the analogy that meridians are like rivers flowing through our bodies that nourish our muscles and organs. When there's pain or disease in the body, there's an obstruction in this flow similar to a dam that blocks the movement in these rivers. Acupuncture serves to remove these dams in order to restore the free flow of these rivers and restore balance to the body.

KVT: What conditions do you typically treat in children?

KM: Acupuncture can be used for a wide variety of ailments and complaints. I find it useful in treating musculoskeletal complaints resulting from sports injuries, such as sprains, strains and concussions. I also use it for migraine headaches, allergies, asthma and digestive issues. And, it's helpful with hormone imbalances and menstrual cycle irregularities in teenage girls.

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KVT: Can you use acupuncture to treat children's mental health issues?

KM: Definitely. I use it frequently for mental and emotional complaints. Acupuncture is a holistic approach that treats the mind as well as the body because it stimulates the body to bring it back into balance. We can use acupuncture to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

KVT: At what age can children begin acupuncture?

KM: I find it easier to treat children who are 10 years old or older because they're better able to understand the concept of acupuncture. Sometimes younger children will associate the needles with getting their blood drawn or with vaccines, which are very different experiences. Not that children younger than 10 shouldn't get acupuncture. I've done acupuncture on my children since they were toddlers. For younger children, you can use acupressure points instead and teach parents where they're located so that they can do that at home. Acupressure involves the application of firm pressure with the fingers to massage and stimulate specific points rather than using needles. The same points used in acupuncture are utilized in acupressure to correct imbalances in the body.

KVT: How do you alleviate fear or anxiety that children may have about the needles?

KM: I find it helpful to first show them the needles so that they see how thin and flexible they are. I will then insert the needle into a point on my own hand to show them that it's not painful and that I'm able to move my hand comfortably. I describe the sensation as similar to a mosquito bite. I also let them know that we can try just one needle at a time and that they're always in control. If they don't like it, we can pull it out quickly. It shouldn't be a painful experience. If they have a parent who gets acupuncture, it can also help to come in and watch their experience.

KVT: Are there times when you wouldn't recommend acupuncture for kids?

KM: There are very few contraindications with acupuncture. I would use caution if a child has a seizure or clotting disorder. But overall, it's a very safe modality.

KVT: Can acupuncture be used as an alternative or complement to Western medical treatments?

KM: Absolutely! It's definitely a great complementary therapy and can be used as an alternative to conventional treatments as well. Because there are so few contraindications, there are very few side effects. The most common is soreness at the site where the needles were that quickly resolves, and sometimes bruising and minimal bleeding. Especially with the current opioid epidemic, acupuncture can be used as a great pain-relieving treatment alternative. I can even help wean people off their pain medications while giving acupuncture for pain relief. Acupuncture can also be used after surgery for pain relief and to improve blood flow and to encourage healing.

KVT: Anything else?

KM: I like to use acupuncture in my primary care naturopathic practice because I focus on wellness and prevention. When you get acupuncture to treat one ailment — say, headaches or migraines — the patient won't just see benefits in that chief complaint. They may also see improvements in other parts of their health. The headaches will go away, but they may also be sleeping better and therefore have more energy. So it's addressing the whole person and bringing the whole body back into balance.

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