How Does Acupuncture Work? A 2019 Guide to the Science and Benefits

​Acupuncture is an alternative or complementary therapy that originates in traditional Chinese medicine. It is most often used to treat forms of chronic pain, but some patients also find it helpful for a wide variety of other conditions, ranging from nausea caused by cancer treatment to digestive problems to addiction.

Acupuncture treatment involves the insertion of very thin needles into the skin in strategic locations on the body. The needles - from five to fifteen, usually - are left inserted while the patient rests, usually for anywhere from five minutes to an hour. Often a recommended course of treatment involves one to three sessions each week for six to eight weeks, although this can vary by practitioner and depending on the patient’s specific health concerns and goals.

Read on for a detailed overview of acupuncture treatment and its many benefits.

What conditions can an acupuncturist treat?

Your acupuncture practitioner can help you improve your health and well-being in a variety of areas. The range of conditions for which patients seek out acupuncture treatment include12:

Pain conditions: Low-back pain, sciatica, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and knee pain, neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, fibromyalgia, toothaches, tennis elbow, tension and migraine headaches, menstrual crampsDigestive problems: The intestinal inflammation of Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory bowel conditions, constipation, colitis, gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome, psychological disorders: Depression, anxiety, insomnia, addiction, chronic stress. To address the side effects of cancer treatment: Nausea and vomiting, fatigue, peripheral neuropathy, etc. Other ailments: Infertility, irregular or heavy periods, seasonal allergies, discomfort relating to menopause, high blood pressure, obesity

Are there different approaches to acupuncture? How do I know which is right for me?

Acupuncture treatment varies by practitioner. In the west, acupuncturists’ approaches vary most in the extent to which they rely on aspects of traditional Chinese medicine, and in how they blend research from western medicine and science into their practice.

In traditional Chinese medicine, many illnesses are seen as being due to the interruption or imbalance of energy flows (or qi, pronounced “chee”) throughout the body. Qi is thought to travel along pathways called meridians. Each meridian is thought to be connected to a different organ system. Illness or injury occurs when energy flows are interrupted, or their yin and yang elements are imbalanced. By inserting needles into certain locations on the body, acupuncture is seen as a way to redirect or rebalance energy flows to achieve better health.

Western researchers are increasingly looking into scientific explanations for acupuncture’s effectiveness, such as the power of belief and the placebo effect and the release of endorphins, brain chemicals that reduce pain. Many Western acupuncturists give some credence to these explanations along with those arising from traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture needles are also thought to aid in pain relief by helping to stimulate tissue and muscle where they are inserted, releasing muscular trigger points (or knots of tense muscles) that can cause pain in the body’s connective tissue (this is sometimes referred to as myofascial pain).

While different acupuncturists may place varying emphasis on Western science or historical Chinese traditions to explain acupuncture’s effects, you can still expect your acupuncture treatment to include the same fundamentals: an initial assessment and the insertion of acupuncture needles in strategic locations on your body depending on the nature of your complaint. For this reason, you can look for an acupuncturist whose language and philosophy you are most comfortable with, as a matter of personal preference.

What does science show about the effectiveness of acupuncture treatment?

As with many traditional and alternative therapies for health and wellness, acupuncture is still in the early stages of empirical science research, and studies can be difficult to design since techniques can vary by practitioner. Still, there is good reason to turn to acupuncture for help with many health conditions.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has determined that acupuncture is a good evidence-based treatment option for people suffering from many kinds of chronic pain as well as symptoms associated with cancer treatment.3 Other studies back this up as well, 4although most researchers agree more are needed. The World Health Organization recognizes an even more comprehensive list of conditions for which acupuncture has been shown to be effective.5

Are there any risks?

Acupuncture is minimally risky as long as good sterile techniques and new needles are used for each patient. There are only a few cases in which standard, professional acupuncture techniques are considered to pose significant risks - if you have a bleeding disorder, are pregnant, or have a pacemaker. These conditions do not rule out acupuncture entirely, but you should get medical guidance from your regular doctor before going, and if you have a pacemaker, you should avoid a special kind of acupuncture practice in which mild electrical pulses are applied to the needles.6

On the whole, though, and especially when compared with other treatments for pain relief such as opiate painkillers, acupuncture is seen as a safe treatment option, either alone or when combined with other approaches such as exercise, yoga, physical therapy, etc.

What will happen at my first acupuncture session? Do the needles hurt?

Your first session will most likely last an hour, and will give your practitioner time to complete an assessment and understand your symptoms and treatment goals. Traditionally, an assessment by an acupuncturist will include a general health history, discussion of lifestyle factors, and the symptoms you wish to address, and examination of your tongue and pulse and general appearance (the latter elements are important in traditional Chinese medicine).

Other practices that originate in traditional Chinese medicine may be offered or included. These can include cupping, which uses suction to increase blood flow to certain areas of the body, and moxibustion, which uses heated sticks of dried herbs near the needle insertion points to further stimulate those locations on the body. Your acupuncturist should be happy to answer any questions you might have about these or other elements of their treatment plan.

The core of an acupuncture treatment session is needle insertion. Once your acupuncturist has completed an assessment and examination, they will insert several needles into different acupuncture points on your body in locations meant to specifically address your needs. The needles are extremely fine and usually cause only minor and temporary discomfort. Some patients experience a faint tingling sensation or warmth, some needle insertions can cause brief pain that quickly subsides.

In any case, if you feel any discomfort it should be minor enough that you can relax while the needles are inserted. You should feel comfortable communicating any needs or questions to your acupuncturist and asking them to help make any necessary adjustments.

Conclusion

Acupuncture is increasingly being seen as a low-risk, effective treatment option for chronic pain and many other health conditions. Whether used alone or in conjunction with standard western medical practice and lifestyle changes, acupuncture can be a powerful tool to improving health, well-being, and quality of life.

Find an Acupuncturist near you

There are hundreds of talented Acupuncturists on DaoCloud:

Atlanta, GA • Austin, TX • Baltimore, MD • Boston, MA • Boulder, CO • Buffalo, NY • Charleston, SC • Charlotte, NC • Chicago, IL • Cincinatti, OH • Cleveland, OH • Columbus, OH • Dallas, TX • Denver, CO • Detroit, MI • Houston, TX • Indianapolis, IN • Kansas City, MO • Las Vegas, NV • Los Angeles, CA • Miami, FL • Minneapolis, MN • New York, NY • Orlando, FL • Philadelphia, PA • Phoenix, AZ • Pittsburg, PA • Portland, OR • Raleigh, NC • Salt Lake City, UT • San Antonio, TX • San Diego, CA • San Francisco, CA • San Jose, CA • Seattle, WA • St. Louis, MO • Tampa, FL • Tucson, AZ • Washington, DC 

References:

1 “Acupuncture Helps Treat Many Numerous Diseases and Conditions”: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/departments/wellness/integrative/treatments-services/acupuncture#what-we-treat-tab

2“Acupuncture”: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/acupuncture/about/pac-20392763

3“Acupuncture: In Depth”: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/introduction#hed3

4 “Acupuncture May Be Helpful for Chronic Pain: A Meta-Analysis”: https://nccih.nih.gov/research/results/spotlight/091012

5“How Does Acupuncture Work?”: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/156488.php

6“Acupuncture: Risks”: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/acupuncture/about/pac-20392763