At school, 8-year-old Alex Karaszi couldn't focus his attention and sit still. Soon, his grades began to suffer. At home, he had mood swings and threw tantrums. "I was grumpy at night," the second-grader explained. The family doctor diagnosed mild to moderate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed medication. Beata Karaszi, Alex's mother, was reluctant, but went ahead at the urging of her husband and the boy's teachers. She stopped it after a week. "He got horrible nightmares, became very sensitive, very emotional. It was horrible," she said. Then she read about another option: acupuncture.
Acupuncture has been an integral part of Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. It is based on the theory that the body's energy, called Qi (pronounced chee), flows freely when you are well, but can become blocked or weak. Inserting hair-thin needles into the skin at specific treatment points on the body can restore a healthy energy flow, practitioners say.
Research suggests that acupuncture stimulates the release of naturally occurring chemicals in the body that affect regulatory systems. National Institutes of Health studies have shown it to be effective for treating pain, and many insurance plans cover such treatments.
"More recently we've been using it for attention deficit disorder, allergies and asthma," said Dr. Laura Weathers, a pediatrician and acupuncture practitioner at USF Health to whom Alex's mother turned for help.
The Karaszi family is so sure acupuncture is helping their son, they are paying $85 per treatment, out of pocket. Insurance won't cover the therapy. Practitioners have long touted it, and fans around the world say it helps improve concentration and calm impulses. But acupuncture for ADHD has not been proved in randomized, double-blind studies, the gold standard of medical evidence.
"To our knowledge, there's no scientific evidence that acupuncture works for ADHD,'' said Ruth Hughes, CEO of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a national advocacy group. "We hope there will be lots of new interventions to help people with ADHD, but right now the science isn't there for acupuncture."
Weathers agrees acupuncture is no magic bullet for everyone, but given the lack of side effects, "if it lessens the medications that they take then it's worth it."
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Weathers began treating Alex about six months ago, initially seeing him twice a week and now every three to four weeks. At this week's visit Weathers inserted one thin needle in each ankle, the inside bend of each elbow and two on top of his head.
When asked if it hurt, Alex smiled broadly. "Just a little at first. But it doesn't hurt like getting a shot."
Weathers then clipped a small electrical stimulator to some of the needles, which gently taps them to stimulate energy in that area. She directed a heat lamp toward his bare feet, turned on relaxing music, lowered the lights and let him lie quietly for 15 to 20 minutes.
For a boy who once couldn't stay still, this soothing ritual now comes easily.
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His mother noticed a difference in her son's behavior after three or four weeks. "Big changes," she said, "He became calmer." The difference was more dramatic to Alex's father. "I was working out of town and would come home on the weekends, so I really noticed the change.''
Medication for Alex cost just $4 a month on the family's insurance, compared with $85 per treatment.
Still, seeing Alex happier, calmer, and performing better in school, his mother says, means "acupuncture has been worth the cost."