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HIV & Acupuncture Treatment

Q&A with Elizabeth Sommers, PhD, MPH, Lac


Elizabeth Sommers, PhD, MPH, licensed acupuncturist and a national expert in acupuncture for patients with HIV/AIDS, joined Boston Medical Center (BMC) in the summer of 2015. Here, she highlights the benefits and health implications of acupuncture for patients with HIV/AIDS.

Q. What is acupuncture, and what is it used to treat?

A. Acupuncture is a drug-free approach to pain management, which involves the insertion of needles or the application of heat or electrical stimulation at specific points in the body to encourage the body to heal itself. Acupuncture points are located along channels of energy called meridians, which run in regular patterns throughout the body. It is used to manage pain in patients living with HIV/AIDS as well as other chronic pain conditions, such as back pain and headaches. Also in medicine, it may be used to control nausea and vomiting.

Q. Why are integrative medicine therapies like acupuncture important for people with HIV?

A. HIV/AIDS has transformed from a terminal diagnosis to a manageable chronic disease. A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report indicated that a person with HIV diagnosed at age 20 and taking current HIV medications will, on average, live to the age of 71, compared to a person without HIV, whose life expectancy is 79 years. As HIV patients live longer, there is an even a greater need to improve their quality of life, and acupuncture and other integrative medicine therapies can help with that improvement.

Acupuncture can help alleviate the symptoms that some patients with HIV experience as a result of their HIV medication, including digestive problems, sleep disturbances, neuropathy and skin rashes. The same is true for anxiety and depression, for which acupuncture treatment can provide welcome relief. Many counselors and other mental health professionals find that using acupuncture in addition to talk therapy can assist patients in improving their quality of life. For women living with HIV/AIDS, acupuncture is helpful with adjusting menstrual cycles and minimizing discomfort of painful periods. Because acupuncture doesn't involve the use of additional drugs, which could interact with antiretroviral HIV treatment, there is decreased risk of adverse events or other medication side effects.

"The effects of acupuncture treatment are cumulative, meaning that with successive treatment, a patient could experience longer periods of greater symptom relief."

Q. Can acupuncture help patients with HIV/AIDS who are being treated, or are in recovery, from substance abuse issues?

A. By promoting healthy endorphin production, acupuncture can help minimize cravings for substances (alcohol, legal or illicit drugs). Acupuncture treatment also helps enhance sleep and minimize anxiety and/or depression, which is important as insomnia and mood disorders are significant triggers for substance use. And because many people use substances as a way to address pain management, acupuncture offers a drug-free approach to controlling pain and can address the cause of the pain (e.g. system or localized inflammation). There's considerable scientific/medical literature to support all of these statements.

Q. How does BMC's HIV acupuncture program work?

A. BMC has a long-standing commitment to caring for patients with HIV/AIDS and offers a comprehensive range of programs in various departments. Earlier this year, BMC launched a program to provide acupuncture services in group settings to people living with HIV/AIDS. The HIV acupuncture program, which is comprised of a multidisciplinary team of experts, is based on a successful national model that has been refined and adapted to offer safe, effective and confidential treatment to each patient. In BMC's group model of care, patients arrive one at a time, consult individually with the acupuncturist, then proceed to the treatment area. Multiple patients may be receiving treatment at the same time, and all rest comfortably and quietly in a group setting.

Acupuncture treatments can last anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes, and some effects may be felt immediately (i.e. relaxation), while others may be more evident within the following 24 hours. Treatment is so comfortable that sometimes patients even fall asleep, given the needles are about the same size as a hair on your head. The effects of treatment are cumulative, meaning that with successive treatment, a patient could experience longer periods of greater symptom relief.

For more information about BMC's acupuncture program for patients with HIV/AIDs, call 617-414-6260.