Is Pediatric Acupuncture for Real? – A Physical Therapist Perspective




I recently recommended acupuncture treatment to a client with an especially challenging case of idiopathic toe-walking. Instead of giving me the raised eyebrows I usually see when recommending alternative medicine to children, her mother eagerly set up an appointment with a well-researched practitioner of her choice. Within a month, the weekly acupuncture sessions in combination with weekly physical therapy sessions paid off. My little client, after years of walking on the balls of her feet 100% of the time, was now only toe-walking 5% of the time.

I know what you are thinking. Sticking multiple needles in children? How could I even suggest such a thing?

Child receiving acupunctureThe practice of acupuncture has been around for thousands of years. Not only has it been greatly accepted in China and eastern cultures, it has also been gaining ground in the United States. In 2011, more than a third of pain clinics across the country utilized some sort of acupuncture as therapy for various ailments. Though acupuncture has been found to be effective in treating adults, research on its efficacy in children is still in the beginning stages.  Boston Children’s Hospital, one of the leading institutions for pediatric care, has an entire service designated to acupuncture. Treatment is performed by a physician trained in both western medicine and eastern medicine, making the approach highly integrative and highly effective.

The term “acupuncture” might register thoughts of needles piercing the skin, but it actually describes a family of treatment options that stimulate anatomical points along the body. Licensed acupuncturists are actually trained in multiple components of traditional eastern medicine.  They, much like pediatric physical therapists, are taught to treat the child holistically, taking into account family and medical history, developmental factors, and severity of condition.  In my client’s case, she was treated with a technique called “cupping,” which worked to stimulate muscle relaxation and improve circulation to areas restricting her motion.  Whether through needles, cups, heat, or through other techniques, the basis of acupuncture is to encourage blood flow and promote healing.

Acupuncture has been successful in treating chronic pain and certain systemic conditions without significant side effects. The majority of pediatric patients are seen for everything from headaches and dental pain to back pain, from constipation to gastritis, from side effects of chemotherapy, to cystic fibrosis. Recent research has even supported acupuncture as a treatment of ADHD, lazy eye, and nausea in children. A specialized acupuncturist in pediatric alternative medicine often uses a variety of techniques to treat the child as a whole. The needles used in acupuncture therapy are small, sterilized, nontoxic, and tightly regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  They are nearly painless and have very few complications.

Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have recognized acupuncture as effective in treating a wide variety of health conditions. Acupuncturist training is at the Master’s degree level, which is the entry-level degree for the profession. With growing research on the effectiveness of and the mechanism behind acupuncture, insurance companies often cover the treatment when it is associated with specific medical conditions. More often than not, acupuncture is used in conjunction with more traditional therapies. I have seen its benefits in numerous individuals with some challenging chronic conditions.

Health care providers, such as physical therapists and primary physicians, serve as resources to help parents determine if alternative treatments are right for their child. Talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns that haven’t been remedied by traditional methods alone. Find a qualified and licensed practitioner who meets the education and training standards set by the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (CCAOM).  Keep an open mind when you bring your child to see an acupuncturist who specializes in pediatric care. Remember, a child’s progress depends on a multitude of factors, and his well-being relies heavily on his health providers staying on the same page about his plan of care.


Do you have questions or experiences with alternative therapies? Please let us know.




  1. Acupuncture, an introduction. National Institute of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. U.S Department of Health Services Website. Accessed at on June 12, 2014.
  2. Pediatric Acupuncture. Psychology Today website. Accessed at on June 12, 2014
  3. Acupuncture. Boston Children’s Hospital website. Accessed at on June 15, 2014
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