Most people in the West, my dental colleagues included, cringe at the notion of putting long needles into someone’s face and body to cure an allegedly incurable disease. Any success from these treatments is deemed to be a coincidence, a psychological trick or a placebo effect. A quick Wikipedia search for “acupuncture” reveals a very narrow view of the practice, dismissing the overall treatment as a placebo. But how much do you really know about acupuncture, and is there a scientific explanation for its supposed effects?

Are the benefits of Acupuncture purely a placebo effect?

I was fortunate to work alongside a consultant in special care dentistry at King’s College London who was studying acupuncture. How exactly did he integrate an ancient Chinese technique into modern-day dentistry?

Acupuncture alone was enough to prevent gag reflexes in patients who previously required sedation.

The field of special-care dentistry involves treating patients that are difficult to manage, whether it be psychologically or physically. Many patients referred to this department may suffer from severe anxiety or pain. This department acted as a referral center for patients all around London.

The condition that treated by acupuncture in this department was the gag reflex. Some patients are unable to receive dental treatment because of a strong gagging reflex when any kind of instrument is placed in their mouth.

In this scenario, a needle was placed by the ear lobe, halting the gag reflex and making treatment possible. The patients we received had already sought treatment at several other clinics before being referred to this specialist center.

Is this better than Western methods of controlling anxiety and gag reflexes?

Western methods include intravenous sedation with a sedative called Midazalam. When a patient receives IV sedation, he or she must be accompanied by another person to make sure they get home safely. The whole procedure can be lengthy and costly for all parties involved, and there are considerable side effects a patient can suffer from the drug.

Acupuncture is far quicker and cheaper. There are no side effects, and the patient does not have to go home accompanied by another adult.

“I have wanted something to work for the last twenty years”

In the study, it was noted that one patient had been looking for a working solution to this problem for the last 20 years. This patient was very motivated to receive dental treatment and get on with it.

Can acupuncture be used to treat other dental problems?

As a Western-trained dentist, I will not say acupuncture can treat all dental pathology. For example, someone with a raging toothache caused by infection will need the infection appropriately dealt with by a dental procedure. I do, however, believe that acupuncture can be used to treat jaw pain, particularly temporo-mandibular dysfunction, since acupuncture has been shown to be effective with many types of musculoskeletal conditions, including back pain.

How does it work?

“It’s just psychological!” one of my colleagues said the first time she saw this. “To be honest, I can’t fully explain this, but one thing for sure is that it works,”  the consultant I worked with replied. Being trained in the Western way, there is very little to explain how this actually works — but if does works, does it really matter how?

Although I am not fully trained in dental acupuncture, I can definitely see a place for acupuncture in dentistry. It’s a shame that these techniques are not explored more widely. This is due to a variety of reasons, including inadequate government funding and support or blockages from the drug industry. However, as shown in the study mentioned above, the technique of acupuncture has worked in the case of gag reflex, and can save patient and dentist alike much cost, in terms of both time and money.

Cover illustration by Marjorie Wang

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