Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice that began thousands of years ago. It is based on the premise that a blockage or disruption in the flow of the body’s vital energy, or “qi,” can cause health problems. Acupuncturists insert hair thin needles at specific acupuncture points throughout the body to restore the flow of qi, balance the body’s energy, stimulate healing, and promote relaxation.
According to TCM theory, there are over 1,000 acupuncture points on the body, each located on an invisible energy channel, or “meridian.” Each meridian is associated with a different organic system.
How does acupuncture work?
Researchers don’t fully understand how acupuncture might work, but there are many theories. One theory is that acupuncture works by stimulating the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals.
Acupuncture is also said to influence the autonomic nervous system (which controls bodily functions) and the release of chemicals that regulate blood flow and pressure, reduce inflammation, and calm the brain.
Acupuncture is said to be helpful in treating a variety of health conditions, including:
- Chronic pain (such as headache, back pain, neck pain)
- Sinus congestion
- Stress and anxiety
Some people use acupuncture to promote fertility. It is also used to quit smoking and for the treatment of other addictions.
Cosmetic acupuncture, also known as facial acupuncture, is used to improve the appearance of the skin.
Here is a look at some of the research findings available on the benefits of acupuncture:
For a report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2017, researchers reviewed previously published trials on the use of non-pharmacological therapies (including acupuncture) for low back pain.
The authors of the report found that acupuncture was associated with decreased pain intensity and better function immediately after acupuncture treatment, compared to no acupuncture. In the long run, however, the differences were small or unclear.
Noting that the strength of the evidence was weak, the authors found “limited evidence” that acupuncture is “modestly effective for acute low back pain”.
In a 2016 review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, scientists looked at 22 previously published trials (involving 4985 participants). In their conclusion, they found that adding acupuncture to the treatment of migraine symptoms can reduce the frequency of episodes, however, the effect size is small compared to sham acupuncture treatment.
A 2016 review (involving 12 trials and 2349 participants) suggested that acupuncture involving at least six sessions may help people with frequent tension headaches.
In two studies, acupuncture added to usual care or treatment only at the onset of the headache (usually with pain relievers) resulted in a decrease in headache frequency compared to usual care only.
The researchers note that the specific stitches used during treatment may play a smaller role than previously thought, and much of the benefit may be due to the effects of needling.
A review of previously published studies found that acupuncture improved short- and long-term physical function in people with chronic knee pain from osteoarthritis, but only seemed to provide relief from short-term pain (up to 13 weeks).
Another review, published in JAMA surgery, reviewed previous studies of non-pharmacological interventions for pain management after total knee replacement surgery and found evidence that acupuncture delayed the use of patient-controlled opioid drugs for pain relief.
How is acupuncture done
Before the initial appointment, you will be asked to complete your medical history. The acupuncturist begins the visit by asking you questions about your health problems, diet, sleep, stress level and other lifestyle habits. You may be asked about your emotions, appetite, food likes and dislikes, and your reaction to changes in temperature and seasons.
During your visit, the acupuncturist will carefully examine your appearance, noting your skin tone, voice, color and coating of your tongue. He or she will take your pulse at three points on each wrist, noting the strength, quality and pace. In Chinese medicine, the tongue and legumes are considered to reflect the health of your organ systems and meridians.
Typically, acupuncture will use six to more than 20 small needles per treatment (the number of needles does not indicate the intensity of the treatment). The needles are often left in place for 10 to 20 minutes. The acupuncturist can gently twist the needles for added effect.
Your acupuncturist may use additional techniques during your session, including:
- MoxibustionAlso known as “moxa”, moxibustion involves the use of heat sticks (made from dried herbs) held near acupuncture needles to warm and stimulate acupuncture points.
- suction cups: Glass or silicone cups are applied to the skin so that there is a suction effect. In TCM theory, suction cups are used to relieve stagnation of qi and blood.
- Herbs: Chinese herbs can be given as teas, pills, and capsules.
- Electroacupuncture: An electrical device is connected to two to four acupuncture needles, providing a weak electric current that stimulates the acupuncture needles during treatment.
- Laser acupuncture: This method is supposed to stimulate acupuncture points without the use of needles.
Auricular acupuncture, also known as auricular acupuncture, is sometimes used during treatment to lose weight, smoking cessation, addictions, and anxiety.
Although the duration of the acupuncture session can vary from a few minutes to over an hour, the typical duration of treatment is 20 to 30 minutes. The initial visit can take up to 90 minutes, including the time for an intake and taking your medical history.
After treatment, some people feel relaxed (or even drowsy), while others feel energetic. If you experience any unusual symptoms, you should see your health care provider.
Does acupuncture hurt?
You may feel a slight stinging, pinching, soreness, or soreness when inserting the acupuncture needle. Some acupuncturists manipulate the acupuncture needle after placing it in the body, twisting or twisting it, moving it up and down, or using a machine with a small pulse or electric current.
Some acupuncturists consider the resulting tingling, numbness, feeling of heaviness, or pain (referred to as “qi”) desirable for the therapeutic effect.
If you experience pain, numbness, or discomfort during treatment, you should immediately notify your acupuncturist.
Possible side effects
As with any treatment, acupuncture comes with certain risks, the most common being pain and bleeding from inserting acupuncture needles. Other side effects may include rash, allergic reactions, bruising, pain, bleeding, nausea, dizziness, fainting, or infection.
To reduce the risk of serious side effects, acupuncture should always be administered by a licensed and properly trained healthcare professional using sterile, disposable needles.
According to a report published in Scientific reports, acupuncture can cause serious side effects, such as infections, nerve and vascular damage, complications from needle breakage or remaining needle pieces, punctured organs, central nervous system injury or spinal cord, hemorrhage and other organ and tissue damage resulting in death.
Perforated pleural membranes around the lungs can lead to lung collapse. People with a rare anatomical variation known as the sternal foramen (a hole in the breastbone) are at risk for a pulmonary or cardiac puncture (pericardium).
There are reports of syringes left in place after treatment. A report published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization summarized the side effects associated with acupuncture in Chinese language studies.
Acupuncture may not be suitable for people with certain health conditions. The risk of bleeding or bruising increases if you have a bleeding disorder or if you are taking blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin).
Acupuncture should not be used in place of standard care. Avoiding or delaying standard care can have serious consequences.
A word from Verywell
If you are having difficulty managing pain or other health issues with conventional methods, acupuncture may be worth a try. Just be sure to check with your health care provider to determine if this is right for you.