Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. A key component of traditional Chinese acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain. Increasingly, it is being used for overall wellness, including stress management.
Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as chi or qi (chee) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance.
In contrast, many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. Some believe that this stimulation boosts your body’s natural painkillers.
Why it’s done
Acupuncture is used mainly to relieve discomfort associated with a variety of diseases and conditions, including:
- Chemotherapy-induced and postoperative nausea and vomiting
- Dental pain
- Headaches, including tension headaches and migraines
- Labor pain
- Low back pain
- Neck pain
- Menstrual cramps
- Respiratory disorders, such as allergic rhinitis
The risks of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner using sterile needles. Common side effects include soreness and minor bleeding or bruising where the needles were inserted. Single-use, disposable needles are now the practice standard, so the risk of infection is minimal. Not everyone is a good candidate for acupuncture. You may be at risk of complications if you:
- Have a bleeding disorder. Your chances of bleeding or bruising from the needles increase if you have a bleeding disorder or if you’re taking blood thinners.
- Have a pacemaker. Acupuncture that involves applying mild electrical pulses to the needles can interfere with a pacemaker’s operation.
- Are pregnant. Some types of acupuncture are thought to stimulate labor, which could result in a premature delivery.
How you prepare
No special preparation is required before acupuncture treatment.
Choosing a practitioner
If you’re considering acupuncture, take the same steps you would to choose a doctor:
- Ask people you trust for recommendations.
- Check the practitioner’s training and credentials. Most states require that nonphysician acupuncturists pass an exam conducted by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
- 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 your insurance covers the treatment.
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.
What you can expect
During an acupuncture treatment, your acupuncturist inserts very thin needles into specific spots on your body. Insertion of the needles usually causes little discomfort.
Each person who performs acupuncture has a unique style, often blending aspects of Eastern and Western approaches to medicine. To determine the type of acupuncture treatment that will help you the most, your practitioner may ask you about your symptoms, behaviors and lifestyle. He or she may also closely examine:
- The parts of your body that are painful
- The shape, coating and color of your tongue
- The color of your face
- The strength, rhythm and quality of the pulse in your wrist
This initial evaluation and treatment may take up to 60 minutes. Subsequent appointments usually take about a half-hour. A common treatment plan for a single complaint would typically involve one or two treatments a week. The number of treatments will depend on the condition being treated and its severity. In general, it’s common to receive six to eight treatments.
During the procedure
Acupuncture points are situated in all areas of the body. Sometimes the appropriate points are far removed from the area of your pain. Your acupuncture practitioner will tell you the general site of the planned treatment and whether you need to remove any clothing. A gown, towel or sheet will be provided. You lie on a padded table for the treatment, which involves:
- Needle insertion. Acupuncture needles are inserted to various depths at strategic points on your body. The needles are very thin, so insertion usually causes little discomfort. People often don’t feel them inserted at all. Between five and 20 needles are used in a typical treatment. You may feel a mild aching sensation when a needle reaches the correct depth.
- Needle manipulation. Your practitioner may gently move or twirl the needles after placement or apply heat or mild electrical pulses to the needles.
- Needle removal. In most cases, the needles remain in place for 10 to 20 minutes while you lie still and relax. There is usually no discomfort when the needles are removed.
After the procedure
Some people feel relaxed and others feel energized after an acupuncture treatment. But not everyone responds to acupuncture. If your symptoms don’t begin to improve within a few weeks, acupuncture may not be right for you.
The benefits of acupuncture are sometimes difficult to measure, but many people find it helpful as a means to control a variety of painful conditions.
Several studies, however, indicate that some types of simulated acupuncture appear to work just as well as real acupuncture. There’s also evidence that acupuncture works best in people who expect it to work.
How Acupuncture Can Relieve Pain and Improve Sleep, Digestion and Emotional Well-being
Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old healing technique of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In 1997, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) documented and publicized acupuncture’s safety and efficacy for treating a wide range of conditions. Acupuncture is now covered by many insurance policies and is used most broadly to relieve pain.
How does Acupuncture work?
Acupuncture improves the body’s functions and promotes the natural self-healing process by stimulating specific anatomic sites–commonly referred to as acupuncture points, or acupoints. The most common method used to stimulate acupoints is the insertion of fine, sterile needles into the skin. Pressure, heat, or electrical stimulation may further enhance the effects. Other acupoint stimulation techniques include: manual massage, moxibustion or heat therapy, cupping, and the application of topical herbal medicines and liniments.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on an ancient philosophy that describes the universe, and the body, in terms of two opposing forces: yin and yang. When these forces are in balance, the body is healthy. Energy, called “qi” (pronounced “chee”) flows along specific pathways, called meridians, throughout the body. This constant flow of energy keeps the yin and yang forces balanced. However, if the flow of energy gets blocked, like water getting stuck behind a dam, the disruption can lead to pain, lack of function, or illness.
Acupuncture therapy can release blocked qi in the body and stimulate function, evoking the body’s natural healing response through various physiological systems. Modern research has demonstrated acupuncture’s effects on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. By stimulating the body’s various systems, acupuncture can help to resolve pain, and improve sleep, digestive function, and sense of well-being.
What happens during an acupuncture treatment?
First, your acupuncturist will ask about your health history. Then, he or she will examine your tongue’s shape, color, and coating, feel your pulse, and possibly perform some additional physical examinations depending on your individual health needs. Using these unique assessment tools, the acupuncturist will be able to recommend a proper treatment plan to address your particular condition.
To begin the acupuncture treatment, you lay comfortably on a treatment table while precise acupoints are stimulated on various areas of your body. Most people feel no or minimal discomfort as the fine needles are gently placed. The needles are usually retained between five and 30 minutes. During and after treatments, people report that they feel very relaxed.
How many treatments will I need?
The frequency and number of treatments differ from person to person. Some people experience dramatic relief in the first treatment. For complex or long-standing chronic conditions, one to two treatments per week for several months may be recommended. For acute problems, usually fewer visits are required, usually eight to ten visits in total. An individualized treatment plan that includes the expected number of treatments will be discussed during your initial visit.
What conditions are commonly treated by Acupuncture?
Hundreds of clinical studies on the benefits of acupuncture show that it successfully treats conditions ranging from musculoskeletal problems (back pain, neck pain, and others) to nausea, migraine headache, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and infertility.
Case-controlled clinical studies have shown that acupuncture has been an effective treatment for the following diseases, symptoms or conditions:
- Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
- Biliary colic
- Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
- Dysentery, acute bacillary
- Dysmenorrhoea, primary
- Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
- Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
- Hypertension, essential
- Hypotension, primary
- Induction of labor
- Knee pain
- Low back pain
- Malposition of fetus, correction
- Morning sickness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Neck pain
- Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
- Periarthritis of shoulder
- Postoperative pain
- Renal colic
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Tennis elbow
The following diseases, symptoms or conditions have limited but probable evidence to support the therapeutic use of acupuncture:
- Abdominal pain (in acute gastroenteritis or due to gastrointestinal spasm)
- Acne vulgaris
- Alcohol dependence and detoxification
- Bell’s palsy
- Bronchial asthma
- Cancer pain
- Cardiac neurosis
- Cholecystitis, chronic, with acute exacerbation
- Competition stress syndrome
- Craniocerebral injury, closed
- Diabetes mellitus, non-insulin-dependent
- Epidemic haemorrhagic fever
- Epistaxis, simple (without generalized or local disease)
- Eye pain due to subconjunctival injection
- Female infertility
- Facial spasm
- Female urethral syndrome
- Fibromyalgia and fasciitis
- Gastrokinetic disturbance
- Gouty arthritis
- Hepatitis B virus carrier status
- Herpes zoster (human (alpha) herpesvirus 3)
- InsomniaLabour pain
- Lactation, deficiency
- Male sexual dysfunction, non-organic
- Ménière disease
- Neuralgia, post-herpetic
- Opium, cocaine and heroin dependence
- Pain due to endoscopic examination
- Pain in thromboangiitis obliterans
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (Stein-Leventhal syndrome)
- Post-extubation in children
- Postoperative convalescence
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Prostatitis, chronic
- Radicular and pseudoradicular pain syndrome
- Raynaud syndrome, primary
- Recurrent lower urinary-tract infection
- Reflex sympathetic dystrophy
- Retention of urine, traumatic
- Sialism, drug-induced (excessive salivation)
- Sjögren syndrome
- Sore throat (including tonsillitis)
- Spine pain, acute
- Stiff neck
- Temporomandibular joint dysfunction
- Tietze syndrome
- Tobacco dependence
- Tourette syndrome
- Ulcerative colitis, chronic
- Vascular dementia
- Whooping cough (pertussis)