Acupuncture has been used throughout the HIV epidemic to address physical symptoms and to promote relaxation. Before the advent of AZT and monotherapy, acupuncture was one of a few approaches that could offer symptom relief and palliative care. Monotherapy brought improved health outcomes for individuals diagnosed with HIV but was often associated with intense side effects. Acupuncture offered relief from a variety of digestive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and an unpleasant change in taste.
Although acupuncture is not a cure for HIV, acupuncture treatment has helped improve quality of life for many people living with HIV. There were acupuncture treatment clinics in various cities in the U.S., including Chicken Soup Clinic in San Francisco and the AIDS Care Project in Boston. Individuals sought relief from pain, management of digestive side effects, alleviation of anxiety and depression, and improvements in sleep. Women have used acupuncture to address painful or absent menstrual periods. For individuals in recovery from substance use, acupuncture has been effective in reducing cravings and promoting recovery.
Today, acupuncture continues to be used by both long-term survivors of HIV as well as individuals who have been more recently diagnosed. The main reasons that people seek acupuncture treatment include pain management, relief from neuropathy, improvement in sleep quality, enhancing relaxation, and stress reduction.
In some states, acupuncture is covered by third-party payers such as insurance and Medicaid. Check with your health care team to get information and referrals for acupuncture. In an attempt to improve access to acupuncture, some cities offer community acupuncture, which is a kind of group-style treatment. The People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA) offers an online clinic finder: pocacoop.com/clinics.
Acupuncture can promote wellness and manage a variety of symptoms safely and effectively. Many individuals prefer to integrate acupuncture into their care because it is a form of drug-free treatment. Use of acupuncture in conjunction with HIV medication is also safe, and some studies indicate that acupuncture may be a factor in improving adherence to medication regimens. Optimizing the health and wellbeing of all people living with HIV is the ultimate goal.
Elizabeth Sommers, PhD, MPH, LAc, is Senior Acupuncturist and Researcher in the Integrative Medicine and Health Disparities Program of Boston Medical Center. She also coordinates an acupuncture clinic at Tufts Medical Center that provides free care for individuals living with HIV/AIDS, and is author of the 2014 book, “Acupuncture as an Adjuvant in the Treatment of HIV/AIDS.” She tweets #PublicHealthHaiku using the handle @AcuOxPhD and loves to follow colleagues from all avenues of public and planetary health.