involves inserting hair-thin needles into your skin to relieve pain.
Find out how acupuncture works and what conditions it can treat. Acupuncture
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 ¡ª
from reducing pain to helping with chemotherapy-induced nausea.
What happens during an acupuncture session? Acupuncture
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 minutes.
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 painful.
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? The
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
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
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
Who is acupuncture for? Acupuncture 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.
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.
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 and osteoarthritis.
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 As 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 methods. It's becoming more available in conventional medical settings. 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. Acupuncture
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
Choosing an acupuncture practitioner If 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. Don't
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.