Acupuncture involves inserting tiny needles into strategic points of the body to stimulate sensory nerves in the skin and muscles. A key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), this may help treat chronic pain and other physical conditions.
TCM explains that health is the result of a harmonious balance of the complementary extremes of yin and yang life force known as Qi, pronounced “chi.” The Qi, is believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. Advocates believe that illness is the consequence of an imbalance of these forces.
Inserting needles into specific points along meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance. These meridians and energy flows are accessible at 361 acupuncture points in the body. Inserting needles into these points with appropriate combinations will bring the energy flow back into 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.
A 2017 review suggests that many acupuncture points are at sites where stimulation can affect the activity of multiple sensory neurons. These sites are also known as receptive fields. The physical stimulation of needle insertion at these sites may affect pain processing in the central nervous system and muscles and increase blood flow to certain parts of the body. 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
- Lower back pain
- Neck pain
- Menstrual cramps
- Respiratory disorders, such as allergic rhinitis
- Tennis elbow
What to expect
An acupuncturist will examine a person and assess their condition, insert one or more thin, sterile needles, and offer advice.
Individuals will typically sit or lie down during the procedure. The acupuncturist should use single-use, disposable, sterile needles. People may feel a very brief stinging or tingling sensation upon needle insertion.
They may then experience a dull ache at the base of the needle.
Typically, the needles will stay in place for 20–60 minutes, although this will vary depending on the procedure.
In some practices, the acupuncturist will sometimes heat needles after insertion.
The number of treatments a person will need depends on their individual case. Someone with a chronic condition may need one or two treatments per week over several months. An acute health issue typically improves after 8–12 sessions.
All therapies come with both risks and benefits. A person should always seek medical advice before undertaking any therapy.
Possible risks of acupuncture are the following:
- Bleeding, bruising, and soreness may occur at the insertion sites.
- Unsterilized needles may lead to infection.
- In rare cases, a needle may break and damage an internal organ.
As with any complementary therapy, it is advisable to use acupuncture alongside conventional treatments in cases of chronic or severe conditions.
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.
Acupuncture has few side effects, so it may be worth a try if you’re having trouble controlling pain with more-conventional methods.
Acupuncture is a traditional complementary therapy that has a historic origin in China. It involves inserting small needles to stimulate specific parts of the body and its neural network.
Studies show that acupuncture can help manage chronic pain, osteoarthritis (OA), headaches, and migraine.
Acupuncture carries little risk of side effects, and practitioners must carry a license to perform acupuncture procedures.