What Is Acupuncture? What Are the Benefits?

Woman treated with acupuncture
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Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice that originated thousands of years ago. It is based on the premise that a blockage or disturbance in the flow of energy, or “qi”, can cause health issues. Acupuncturists insert hair-thin needles to specific points throughout the body to restore the flow of qi to balance the body’s energy, stimulate healing, and promote relaxation.

According to TCM theory, there are over 1000 acupuncture points on the body, each lying on an invisible energy channel, or “meridian.” Each meridian is associated with a different organ system.

How Acupuncture Works

Researchers don't understand exactly how acupuncture works, but there are numerous theories, including that acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins, your body's natural pain-relieving chemicals.

Acupuncture is also said to influence the autonomic nervous system (which controls bodily functions) and the release of chemicals that regulate blood flow and pressure, reduce inflammation, and calm the brain, making you feel more relaxed.

Why Do People Get Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is said to be useful in addressing a variety of health conditions including:

  • Arthritis
  • Chronic pain (such as headaches, lower back pain, neck pain)
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Migraines
  • Nausea
  • Sciatica
  • Sinus congestion
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Tinnitus
  • Weight loss

Some people use acupuncture to promote fertility. It is also used to quit smoking and as a component of the treatment for other addictions.

Cosmetic acupuncture, also known as facial acupuncture, is used to improve the appearance of skin.

The Benefits: Can Acupuncture Help?

Here's a look at some of the research on the benefits of acupuncture:

Low Back Pain

A 2013 systematic review of trials found that acupuncture was more helpful for non-specific chronic low back pain than no treatment.

Tension Headaches

A 2016 review (involving 12 trials and 2349 participants) suggests that acupuncture (involving at least six sessions) may help people with frequent tension headaches.

Migraines

A 2006 review of 22 trials (involving 4985 participants) found that adding acupuncture to the treatment of migraines reduces the frequency of episodes and may be at least effective as medication used to reduce the frequency of migraine episodes.

Knee Pain

An analysis of previously published studies found that acupuncture improved physical function in the short and long term in people with chronic knee pain due to osteoarthritis, but it appeared to provide only short-term (up to 13 weeks) relief of pain.

What a Typical Acupuncture Treatment is Like

Before the initial appointment, you will be asked to complete a health history. The acupuncturist begins the visit by asking you about your health concerns, diet, sleep, stress level, and other lifestyle habits. You may be asked about your emotions, appetite, food likes and dislikes, and response to changes in temperature and seasons.

During your visit, the acupuncturist will examine your appearance carefully, noting your complexion, voice, and tongue color and coating. He or she will take your pulse at three points on each wrist, noting the strength, quality, and rhythm. In Chinese medicine, the tongue and pulses are considered to reflect the health of your organ systems and meridians.

Typically, an acupuncture will use six to 15 tiny needles per treatment (the number of needles doesn't indicate the intensity of the treatment). You may feel a slight sting as the needle is being inserted. The needles are often left in for 10 to 20 minutes. The acupuncturist may twist the needles for added effect. If you experience pain, numbness, or discomfort during the treatment, you should notify your acupuncturist immediately.

Your acupuncturist may use additional techniques during your session including:

  • Moxibustion. Also known as "moxa", moxibustion involves the use of heated sticks (made from dried herbs) held near the acupuncture needles to warm and stimulate the acupuncture points.
  • Cupping. Glass cups are applied to the skin so that there is a suction effect. In TCM theory, cupping is used to relieve stagnation of qi and blood.
  • Herbs. Chinese herbs may be given in the form of teas, pills, and capsules.
  • Electroacupuncture. An electrical device is connected to two to four acupuncture needles, providing a weak electrical current that stimulates the acupuncture needles during the treatment.
  • Laser acupuncture. Said to stimulate acupuncture points without the use of needles.

Ear acupuncture, also known as auricular acupuncture, is sometimes used during the treatment for weight loss, smoking cessation, addictions, and anxiety.

Although the length of the acupuncture session can vary from a few minutes to over an hour, the typical treatment length is 20 to 30 minutes. The initial visit may take up to 60 minutes.

After the treatment, some people feel relaxed (or even sleepy), while others feel energetic. If you experience any unusual symptoms, you should consult your doctor.

Side Effects of Acupuncture

As with any treatment, acupuncture does pose some risks, but the frequency of adverse effects is low when administered by a licensed and properly trained practitioner using sterile needles.

Possible side effects can include nausea, dizziness, fainting, and soreness, minor bleeding, or bruising at the needle sites.

Improperly administered acupuncture can cause serious adverse effects, such as infections, nerve and blood vessel damage, needle breakage, and punctured organs. Punctured pleural membranes around the lungs can lead to collapsed lungs. People with a rare, anatomical variation known as sternal foramen (a hole in the breastbone) are at risk of lung or heart (pericardium) puncture.

There have been some reports of needles being left in after the treatment. A report published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization summarized the acupuncture-related adverse effects in Chinese language studies.

Acupuncture may not be right for people with certain health conditions. The risk of bleeding or bruising increases if you have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin).

Acupuncture shouldn't be used in place of standard care. Avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

The Takeaway

If you are having difficulty managing pain or other health issues with conventional methods, acupuncture may be worth a try. Just be sure to check with your doctor first to discuss whether it's appropriate for you.

Sources:

Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Avins AL, et al. A randomized trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture, and usual care for chronic low back pain. Arch Intern Med. 2009 May 11;169(9):858-66. 

Lam M, Galvin R, Curry P. Effectiveness of acupuncture for nonspecific chronic low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 Nov 15;38(24):2124-38. 

Lin X, Huang K, Zhu G, Huang Z, Qin A, Fan S. The Effects of Acupuncture on Chronic Knee Pain Due to Osteoarthritis: A Meta-Analysis. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2016 Sep 21;98(18):1578-85.

Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Jun 28;(6):CD001218. 

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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