Acupuncture involves using thin needles to puncture the skin at specific points on the body. This technique is a practice used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which has been around for thousands of years.
How It Works
In China, acupuncture is often used as a go-to treatment for everything from asthma to diabetes, but in the United States, it is more often used as a complementary treatment alongside other treatments or drugs for conditions like low back pain, joint pain, and headaches, and sometimes to help ease nausea and vomiting.
Chronic Pain Symptom Relief
- Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain.
- The effects of acupuncture persist over time.
- The benefits of acupuncture cannot be explained solely by the placebo effect.
The researchers summarized the inherent challenges of performing truly controlled acupuncture studies and forming general conclusions about acupuncture's effectiveness because of, for example, the high variety of unique characteristics in patients, the variety of types of acupuncture and point prescriptions, and the variety of durations of treatments used in clinical practice.
Other studies and reviews have shown that acupuncture helps with the following specific types of pain.
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General Health and Wellness Benefits of Acupuncture
How Acupuncture Benefits Other Symptoms and Conditions
While more research is needed to determine how effective acupuncture is for various conditions, some research shows it may benefit the following.
A review that evaluated acupuncture for the treatment of cervical vertigo found that acupuncture may be more effective in improvement of clinical symptoms and average blood flow velocity of the vertebral-basilar artery compared with conventional medicine therapy for cervical vertigo.
Studies have also found that acupuncture can reduce pain from endometriosis along with the blood level of CA-125, a protein associated with the disease. Researchers theorize that as acupuncture seems to promote relaxation, it reduces the muscle tension and stress that come with chronic pain.
Another review of studies shows why it’s hard to get an overall understanding of the benefits of acupuncture for UC. When researchers looked at 63 studies published between 1995 and 2015, the study designs were varied, such as whether the study analyzed acupuncture as an only therapy, in combination with medication, or in addition to other alternative remedies. Other differences included the placement of the needles on the body, how long treatment continued, and how outcomes were measured.
Although these differences and variability make acupuncture difficult to study, it’s revealing that so many studies and reviews show positive effects.
A review of research found that acupuncture in addition to asthma treatments led to a statistically significant improvement in symptom response rates and resulted in lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), which the body produces in response to infections and injuries.
Too much IL-6 can contribute to chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is a hallmark of asthma.
In a meta-analysis of studies, researchers found that acupuncture or acupressure lowered pain intensity for cancer pain. Moreover, some studies suggested that acupuncture for cancer patients taking opiate pain medications could lead to a reduction in their use.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center states that acupuncture is safe and effective for treating side effects of cancer treatment such as:
- Dry mouth
- Neuropathy symptoms (pain caused by nerve damage)
- Nausea and vomiting
And a review of studies found that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for obesity when used with dietary interventions. Yet the researchers noted that the evidence is not fully convincing because of the poor methodological quality of the trials reviewed and called for higher quality studies to determine acupuncture’s effect on obesity.
How to Get Acupuncture
If you’re interested in acupuncture, finding a licensed acupuncturist is the next step, and finding one who has experience in the condition causing you discomfort is even better. There are several types of licensed acupuncturists or licensed health professionals who can provide acupuncture:
- Medical doctors can receive extra training in acupuncture. Many of these doctors are members of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. Visit the referral directory on that group's website.
- People specifically train in acupuncture after completing a multiyear master’s program in acupuncture or TCM and passing a national certification exam. You can find a certified practitioner on this website (click on “Find a Practitioner,” then input your city and state). You can also find updates about licensure on your individual state’s regulatory board website, similar to looking up an MD’s license status.
- Naturopathic physicians are trained to give acupuncture. Find a practitioner at the website of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Put your ZIP code into the group's online directory.
What to Expect During an Acupuncture Session
During an acupuncture visit, an acupuncturist will ask about your medical history and any symptoms you’re experiencing and examine you. Then a treatment plan will be created based on their evaluation of the causes and perpetuating factors for your concerns, similar to other health practitioners.
For the specific acupuncture treatment, they’ll have you sit or lie down on a table, often in a dimly lit room, and they will insert needles into acupuncture points on areas of your body. Needles typically remain inserted between 20 and 45 minutes while you rest comfortably in the treatment room. Some practitioners may also include moxibustion, cupping, acupressure, electrical stimulation to the needles, or external heat to your body.
- Floating with a tingling, warm sensation
- Heaviness, heat, and cold
How frequently you'll need to receive acupuncture depends on what you are seeking relief from. If you have a chronic issue, you may need to go more frequently than if you have an acute problem. The College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Newfoundland and Labrador (CTCMPANL) points out that “a small number of patients will experience a worsening of symptoms as the body’s energies are returning to normal, but this is usual and is followed quickly by improvement.”
Fees: Is Acupuncture Expensive? And Will Insurance Cover It?
- Cost range for a first-time acupuncture visit was $15 to $400.
- The median for all 723 clinics was $112.
- For the follow-up visits, the cost range was $15 to $300.
- The median price was $80 for all 723 clinics.
- The symptoms you receive treatment for may get worse for a few days after having acupuncture.
- You might experience changes in sleep, appetite, bowels, urination, or your emotional state, but all of these are a sign that acupuncture is starting to work.
- Fainting, infection, and bruising may occur.
- In very rare, unlikely cases, acupuncture could puncture vital organs.
For more information about acupuncture, visit the following:
- National Acupuncture Foundation
- American Academy of Medical Acupuncture
- National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
- American Association of Naturopathic Physicians