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 treat.


Information from the
Mayo Clinic

Acupuncture 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 chemotherapy-induced nausea.

What happens during an acupuncture session?
Acupuncture 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?
The 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?
Acupuncture 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 surgery.
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
As 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 methods.
• It's becoming more available in conventional medical settings.
• 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.
Acupuncture 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
If 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 (NCCAOM).
• 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 insurance.
Don't 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.