More and more people are turning to acupuncture as a likely safe and possibly effective therapy for various health concerns, from insomnia to stress, menstrual cramps to low back pain.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) therapy for balancing the body’s energy, known as qi, which travels through various energetic pathways, known as meridians, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In TCM’s conceptualization of health and disease, the balance of qi supports overall wellness, and any disruption to it may cause health concerns, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that inserting tiny stainless steel needles into specific points called acupoints along the meridians may help rebalance the flow of qi, ultimately working to restore your overall health.
Acupoints are sites on the body that, according to TCM, release certain chemicals when stimulated, which when looked at through a conventional biomedical lens, can prompt an immune response and may help support physiological homeostasis, potentially limiting the symptoms of various health ailments, according to a study.
“[In the United States], acupuncture has been most researched, with evidence of positive effects for chronic low back pain, knee pain from osteoarthritis, headaches due to either tension headaches or migraines, postoperative or chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and seasonal allergies,” says Grant Chu, MD, an assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles and the associate director of education at the university's Center for East-West Medicine.
Here’s what you might want to know about the potential health and wellness benefits of acupuncture, scientific findings that may bolster our understanding of acupuncture’s possible upsides, and the acupuncture applications that need further research.
Possible Health Benefits of Acupuncture Therapy
1. Relieve Chronic Pain
Acupuncture may help decrease low back pain and knee pain from wear and tear osteoarthritis (OA).
A meta-analysis published in May 2017 in Pain examined nearly 18,000 patients with chronic pain (including low back, neck, and shoulder pain; knee OA; and headache or migraine). It revealed that the pain-reducing effects of a course of acupuncture therapy persisted over 12 months. However, whether patients noted improvement past 12 months without additional acupuncture therapy remains to be more fully evaluated.
Similarly, a review published in April 2017 in the Annals of Internal Medicine evaluated nondrug approaches to treating low back pain and found that acupuncture lowered discomfort and improved function immediately following the session. Again, the authors noted that the long-term effects of acupuncture are still unclear and require further study.
However, in a response to a call by the U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services for public comment on whether to include acupuncture therapy and licensed acupuncturists for federal payment, the Society for Acupuncture Research (SAR) outlined several research findings, which included the meta-analysis published in Pain. In its feedback, published in April 2019 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, SAR recommended including acupuncture as part of a comprehensive pain-management strategy for aging Americans. Subsequently, in January 2021, the CMS finalized its decision to cover acupuncture therapy for chronic low back pain for Medicare beneficiaries.
Though further research may shed light on the functionality of acupuncture, conventional medicine is beginning to view acupuncture as a reasonable integrative approach to chronic pain management.
One school of thought on how acupuncture may help lower pain centers on the body’s healing response.
When an acupuncture practitioner inserts a needle, it penetrates the fascia, a richly innervated type of connective tissue that wraps around all of your muscles and organs, according to Rosanne Sheinberg, MD, a medical acupuncturist and the director of integrative medicine for anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
“It’s like a tickle under the nose,” Dr. Sheinberg says. Your body senses that something is going on and responds by sending blood, lymph fluid, and other nutrients to help the stimulated area heal, she explains.
2. Tame Allergic Asthma
Acupuncture may be a helpful adjunct treatment for asthma — specifically, allergic asthma, which the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology describes as a type of asthma that’s triggered by inhaling allergens like pollen, dust, food, and mold.
For example, in one study of people with allergic asthma, published in April 2017 in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, those who received up to 15 acupuncture treatments over three months experienced greater improvements in disease-specific and health-related quality of life than people who received routine care only.
What’s more, findings from a systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2019 in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine indicate that combining acupuncture with conventional asthma treatments led to a statistically significant reduction in asthma symptoms. It also resulted in a decrease in interleukin-6 (IL-6), a cytokine that is created when you get an infection or injury.
If your IL-6 level rises too high, it can contribute to chronic inflammation, according to research. As asthma is characterized by chronic inflammation, the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine research suggests that acupuncture may help people with asthma by lowering pro-inflammatory proteins like IL-6 and, in turn, reducing inflammation.
3. Control Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, medications used to control nausea and vomiting are often not enough, and increasing the dosage to boost their efficacy may cause other side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, and constipation, according to a study published in January 2020 in Medicine.
Acupuncture may offer an alternative solution. In a review of 41 randomized, controlled trials, researchers concluded that acupuncture is a safe and effective complementary therapy for patients with cancer who are struggling with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, but they addded that additional research should further this.
Of note, you may not need to insert a needle into the body to have an effect. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recommends that patients stimulate specific acupoints themselves via acupressure (applying pressure with your fingers to acupuncture points) to reduce nausea at home. One study of 90 patients experiencing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting from treatments for acute myeloblastic leukemia found that applying pressure to the P6 acupuncture point on the wrist with a braceletlike acupressure band over the course of four days reduced the frequency and severity of nausea and vomiting.
Acupuncture may also help ease and prevent nausea during pregnancy. In a randomized, controlled study in Australia, 593 women in the early stages of pregnancy (less than 14 weeks) who reported symptoms of nausea or vomiting were divided into four groups. One group received typical acupuncture, one received acupuncture only at the pericardium 6 acupoint (a pressure point believed to reduce nausea), one was given sham acupuncture (in which the needles were placed outside of formal acupoints), and one control group received no acupuncture. Each experimental group received one treatment per week for four weeks. The women in the typical acupuncture group reported less nausea throughout the study and generally felt better than the women in the other groups.
While the mechanisms of acupuncture aren’t fully understood, it may help to regulate nerves and neurotransmitters that play a role in nausea and vomiting, as well as maintain gastrointestinal function, according to the Medicine study.
4. Improve Sleep
Acupuncture may be a helpful therapy for people with insomnia and people who experience sleep disturbances.
Insomnia is commonly treated with medications like sedatives. However, while sedatives may be effective in the short term, long-term use may cause negative side effects, such as excessive drowsiness and dependence on the medication, according to a study of 72 participants published in September 2017 in Sleep Medicine. In the randomized, controlled trial, people with insomnia who received acupuncture three times per week for four weeks saw significant improvements in sleep quality and anxiety compared with people who received sham acupuncture (the control group, for whom no needle penetrated the skin and only the plastic tubing touched the skin).
Another review of 30 randomized, controlled trials found similar results: Acupuncture was more effective for improving sleep quality and daytime functioning than sham acupuncture, in general.
According to Sheinberg, acupuncture may work for insomnia by calming the sympathetic nervous system, or the fight-or-flight response, to better prepare the body for sleep. “A lot of people have a more activated stress response,” she says. “They may be stressed because they just got a cancer diagnosis or had a hospitalization, or they may just be stressed by daily responsibilities.”
It’s hard to drift off when your sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive. But through the stimulation of specific acupoints, acupuncture, when looked at through a conventional research lens, may release chemicals that promote relaxation and sleep, such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid, according to the Sleep Medicine study.
5. Help Prevent and Reduce Headache and Migraine Severity
Research suggests that in addition to helping ease certain types of chronic pain, acupuncture may also alleviate painful headaches or migraines.
The findings from a study published in April 2017 in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that people with a diagnosis of migraine without aura who received acupuncture five days a week for four weeks saw a greater reduction in migraines 16 weeks after starting the study than those who were given sham acupuncture.
In addition, a review of 22 trials involving patients experiencing migraine prophylaxis found that acupuncture treatments may be similarly effective as treatments involving prophylactic drugs (mainstream medical approaches taken daily to prevent migraines).
Similarly, a review from the same authors of the aforementioned migraine review examined 12 trials of participants who experienced acute and chronic tension-type headaches. Reviewers found that acupuncture may be effective for treating this kind of pain, but further trials, particularly those comparing acupuncture with other treatment options, are needed to substantiate these findings.
6. Ease Menstrual Cramps
Acupuncture may also prove a helpful integrative therapy for painful periods.
In a meta-analysis published in June 2018 in Medicine, researchers examined 49 randomized, controlled trials and found that typical acupuncture and electroacupuncture (a form of acupuncture that incorporates a weak electric current) were more helpful for relieving menstrual pain than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
Another study of 74 women, published in July 2017 in PloS One, found that more frequent acupuncture treatments may be most effective in easing menstrual pain. Women who received three acupuncture treatments during the week before their period experienced greater improvements in pain intensity than women who received three acupuncture treatments every 7 to 10 days in between their periods. All of the women were given a total of 12 acupuncture treatments over three menstrual cycles and a treatment within 48 hours of their menses. However, studies using larger groups of women are needed to determine if acupuncture can help with period pain and the ideal frequency of treatment.
7. Aid Recovery After Surgery
Surgery recovery can feel like a long haul. Some patients cope with a variety of symptoms after surgery, including nausea and vomiting from general anesthesia, pain around the incision site, restlessness and sleep troubles, constipation, and sore throat, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
To relieve some of these symptoms and promote healing, some healthcare providers, like Sheinberg, recommend acupuncture. “I end up using it a great deal in my anesthesia practice,” she says.
In a study of 172 participants published in January 2017 in Integrative Cancer Therapies, patients who received acupuncture after surgery reported significant improvements in sleep, anxiety, pain, fatigue, nausea, and drowsiness.
According to Sheinberg, other patients have reported improvements in chemotherapy-related hot flashes and peripheral neuropathy (weakness or numbness in the hands or feet) after receiving acupuncture.
While it likely depends on the type of chemotherapy and cancer, one study in women with breast cancer found that participants experienced a lower hot-flash score and improved quality of life after acupuncture treatments, as part of an enhanced self-care routine. Another study of 40 women, published in April 2020 in Oncologist, found that women with chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy experienced significant improvements in neuropathic symptoms from an eight-week acupuncture treatment regimen, though further, larger studies are needed to substantiate these findings.
Along with the potential physiological benefits, a study of 20 patients with breast cancer published in November 2021 in Integrative Cancer Therapies found that women who received acupuncture along with chemotherapy stated that it was relaxing and beneficial. They also mentioned the importance of the inviting setting and the empathetic attitude of the therapist, and that it helped them cope with the disease in a “salutogenic way,” meaning that receiving acupuncture therapy offered an outlook to their wellness that focused on health and not the disease.
The Bottom Line: Is Acupuncture Worth Potentially Trying to Address Your Health Concerns?
Acupuncture, when practiced by a licensed provider, is generally considered safe and may be an effective therapy for a variety of health concerns. However, as with all conventional medicine, and complementary and alternative therapies, it’s important to remain thoughtful of your own health conditions and risks, and to consult your healthcare provider before pursuing treatment.
“Although acupuncture is overall very safe, it’s still a procedure that should only be performed by trained healthcare professionals,” Dr. Chu says.
Be sure to verify your practitioner’s credentials before seeking therapy. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, most states require that practitioners obtain a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Some medical doctors and doctors of osteopathic medicine also practice acupuncture with varying levels of TCM and medical acupuncture backgrounds. You can discuss their training and experience with them to discern if they are a proper fit for your needs, versus seeing a more typical acupuncture or traditional Chinese medicine practitioner.
Sheinberg also recommends finding an acupuncturist who’s been trained by the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture to ensure you receive the safest, most personalized therapy that may work for you.