CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A couple of years ago, meningitis changed Justin Church's life. He survived the illness, but it left him with chronic headaches.
"It ranges from a daily sort of very dull headache to pain that becomes much more sharp during what I would call an 'attack,'" Church said.
Church tried medications, changed his diet and exercised more, but said these traditional headache treatments had not been very effective for him. So, he decided he would try an ancient Chinese therapy called acupuncture.
In a clinical trial at UNC Hospitals, researcher Dr. Wunian Chen used acupuncture, along with standard medical treatment, on a group of patients with chronic daily headaches. The results were compared to patients who received standard medical therapy alone.
"What we found was that acupuncture was clearly helpful for those who had acupuncture compared to those who didn't get acupuncture," said Dr. Remy Coeytaux, an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine's department of family medicine.
The results of the UNC study are in line with several other recent studies that seem to show acupuncture does help some patients. If it is effective, then it may be better than taking medications that may come with side effects.
There are very few health risks from acupuncture, which is classified as an alternative -- or complementary -- medicine. The practice involves small needles that are placed in strategic points in the human body to affect a variety of illnesses. For example, a point on the hand is linked to pain in the head.
Researchers believe the needles may spark a rise in the body's natural painkillers, called endorphins, and may help muscles to relax. MRI tests and PET scan images show the therapy affects metabolism and blood flow to the brain.
Then, there is what the ancient Chinese claimed centuries ago.
"Is this idea that there is energy coursing through the body and that the placement of needles can affect that energy," Coeytaux said.
The Chinese called that energy "Qi." Coeytaux said it could be the same type of electrical energy measured with electrocardiograms of the heart.
Church, who just began his treatment, said he was not sure about that theory. Still, he said, nothing else has worked.
"But you know, I'm sort of at the point where I'm ready to try anything," Church said.