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
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
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 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
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 (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.
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.