Acupuncture: Can it help?
Acupuncture involves inserting hair-thin needles into
your skin to relieve pain. Find out how acupuncture
works and what conditions it can
Information from the Mayo Clinic
involves the insertion of extremely thin needles
through your skin, to various depths at strategic
points on your body. Acupuncture originated in China
thousands of years ago, but over the past two decades
its popularity has grown significantly within the
United States. Although scientists don't fully
understand how or why acupuncture works, some studies
indicate that it may provide a number of medical
benefits — from reducing pain to helping with
What happens during an acupuncture session?
therapy usually involves a series of weekly or biweekly
treatments in an outpatient setting. It's common to
have up to 12 treatments in total. Although each
acupuncture practitioner has his or her own unique
style, each visit typically includes an exam and an
assessment of your current condition, the insertion of
needles, and a discussion about self-care tips. An
acupuncture visit generally lasts about 30 minutes.
Before the needles are placed, you'll lie down on a
comfortable surface. Depending on where the needles are
to go, you will lie facedown, faceup or on your side.
Make sure that your acupuncturist uses single-use
sterile packaged needles. You may feel a brief, sharp
sensation when the needle is inserted, but generally
the procedure isn't painful.
It's common, however, to feel a deep aching sensation
when the needle reaches the correct depth. After
placement, the needles are sometimes moved gently or
stimulated with electricity or heat. As many as a dozen
needles may need to be placed for each treatment. Once
the needles are inserted, they're usually left in place
for five to 20 minutes.
How does acupuncture work?
traditional Chinese theory behind acupuncture as
medical treatment is very different from that of
Western medicine. In traditional Chinese medicine,
health results form a harmonious balance between the
complementary extremes (yin and yang) of the life force
known as qi or chi.
Qi is believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in
your body. These meridians and the energy flow are
accessible through more than 350 acupuncture points.
Illness results from an imbalance of the forces. By
inserting needles into these points in various
combinations, acupuncture practitioners believe that
your energy flow will rebalance.
In contrast, the Western explanation of acupuncture
incorporates modern concepts of neuroscience. Many
practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to
stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. This
stimulation appears to boost the activity of your
body's natural painkillers and increase blood flow.
Who is acupuncture for?
seems to be useful as a stand-alone treatment for some
conditions, but it's also increasingly being used in
conjunction with more conventional Western medical
treatments. For example, doctors may combine
acupuncture and drugs to control pain and nausea after
Scientific studies generally test treatments against
placebos, such as sugar pills. It's difficult to
conduct valid scientific studies of acupuncture,
because it's difficult to devise sham versions of
acupuncture. In fact, several studies have indicated
that sham acupuncture works as well or almost as well
as real acupuncture.
This makes it hard to create a definitive list of the
conditions for which acupuncture might be helpful.
However, preliminary studies indicate that acupuncture
may offer symptomatic relief for a variety of diseases
and conditions, including low back pain, headaches,
fibromyalgia, migraines and osteoarthritis.
In addition, research shows acupuncture can help manage
postoperative dental pain and alleviate
chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. It also
appears to offer relief for chronic menstrual cramps
and tennis elbow.
Pros and cons
with most medical therapies, acupuncture has both
benefits and risks. Consider the benefits:
• Acupuncture is safe when performed properly.
• It has few side effects.
• It can be useful as a complement to other treatment
• It's becoming more available in conventional medical
• It helps control certain types of pain.
• It may be an alternative if you don't respond to or
don't want to take pain medications.
may not be safe if you have a bleeding disorder or if
you're taking blood thinners. The most common side
effects of acupuncture are soreness, bleeding or
bruising at the needle sites. Rarely, a needle may
break or an internal organ might be injured. If needles
are reused, infectious diseases may be accidentally
transmitted. However, these risks are low in the hands
of a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner.
Choosing an acupuncture practitioner
you're considering acupuncture, do the same things you
would do if you were choosing a doctor:
• Ask people you trust for recommendations.
• Check the practitioner's training and credentials.
Most states require that non-physician acupuncturists
pass an exam conducted by the National Certification
Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
• Interview the practitioner. Ask what's involved in
the treatment, how likely it is to help your condition
and how much it will cost.
• Find out whether the expense is covered by your
be afraid to tell your doctor you're considering
acupuncture. He or she may be able to tell you about
the success rate of using acupuncture for your
condition or recommend an acupuncture practitioner for
you to try.