In February 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of codeine as a pain-reliever for children after tonsillectomies. Doctors were forced to look for a safer alternative, and have looked to the ancient art of acupuncture to provide an viable substitute.

A recent study, conducted by Dr. James Ochi, used acupuncture for a test group of tonsillectomy patients, and the results were impressive. Dr. Ochi, a San Diego pediatric ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon of some 20 years experience, used acupuncture on a total of 31 of his patients, in the age range 2 to 17 years old. Prior to treatment, the patients reported an average pain level of 5.52 out of 10, but after 15 minutes of acupuncture, this level had dropped to just 1.92.

Patients reported that the treatment kept them pain-free for up to 2½ days, with none of the adverse side effects typically experienced when taking pain-killing drugs.

"I’ve been using medical acupuncture for years to help my patients suffer less pain after surgery. Now that it is unsafe to use codeine for these kids, I wanted to see if acupuncture without the use of narcotics was helpful for my patients," said Dr. Ochi. "Acupuncture in general has been shown to be effective in reducing pain, is safe and can be done quickly at minimal cost."

Without the use of acupuncture, patients’ only other alternatives were non-prescription pain medications such as Tylenol and Ibuprofen, each carrying the risk of unpleasant and sometimes severe side effects. In August 2103, the FDA warned that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, could cause rare but serious skin reactions including rash, blisters, and in some cases, widespread damage to the skin surface.

Pain can be prolonged after surgery and a significant dosage of drugs can be necessary to control pain. Until Dr. Ochi’s study, narcotics had been the only option for pain relief in minors after tonsil surgery, and since the restriction on opioids choices of suitable medication had become even more limited.

"No matter who performs the surgery or how it’s done, children often experience pain for ten days after tonsillectomy, even longer for adults," said Dr. Ochi. "It’s extremely gratifying to see a safe and drug free treatment such as acupuncture reduce the pain and discomfort in children after surgery."

Dr. Ochi carried out all of the tonsillectomies himself at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, and the acupuncture treatments were performed at the El Centro Medical Center Clinic, CA, and at his own office in Encinitas, CA. His study was published in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, a medical journal exclusively devoted to the subspecialty of pediatric otolaryngology.

In another related study conducted at Harvard Medical School, acupuncture was shown to reduce pain and agitation in children after they had undergone ear surgery. One can only hope that the medical profession will now see the value in providing safe, risk-free pain relief using this ancient discipline, which is used widely by the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK. It is estimated that the NHS spends around £25million on acupuncture treatments each year, which are generally prescribed by doctors for lower back pain and tension headaches.

Despite the negative views of scientific rationalists who maintain that there is no way to scientifically prove the efficacy of acupuncture treatment or its mechanism of action, the NHS Choices website says there is "reasonably good evidence" that acupuncture is effective at treating a range of conditions, including back pain, dental pain, headache, nausea after operations and osteoarthritis of the knee, and there is a wealth of positive anecdotal evidence from patients who confirm that the treatment works for them.

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