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Acupuncture has been practiced in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years. Acupuncture involves stimulating specific points on the body. This is most often done by inserting thin needles through the skin, to cause a change in the physical functions of the body.

Research has shown that acupuncture reduces nausea and vomiting after surgery and chemotherapy. It can also relieve pain. Researchers don’t fully understand how acupuncture works. It might aid the activity of your body’s pain-killing chemicals. It also might affect how you release chemicals that regulate blood pressure and flow.

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What is Acupuncture?

An acupuncurist will insert needles into a person’s body with the aim of balancing their energy.

This, it is claimed, can help boost wellbeing and may cure some illnesses.

Conditions it is used for include different kinds of pain, such as headaches, blood pressure problems, and whooping cough, among others.

How does it work?

Traditional Chinese medicine explains that health is the result of a harmonious balance of the complementary extremes of “yin” and “yang” of the life force known as “qi,” pronounced “chi.” Illness is said to be the consequence of an imbalance of the forces.

Qi is said to flow through meridians, or pathways, in the human body. These meridiens and energy flows are accessible through 350 acupuncture points in the body.

Inserting needles into these points with appropriate combinations is said to bring the energy flow back into proper balance.

There is no scientific proof that the meridians or acupuncture points exist, and it is hard to prove that they either do or do not, but numerous studies suggest that acupuncture works for some conditions.

Some experts have used neuroscience to explain acupuncture. Acupuncture points are seen as places where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. The stimulation increases blood flow, while at the same time triggering the activity of the body’s natural painkillers.

It is difficult to set up investigations using proper scientific controls, because of the invasive nature of acupuncture. In a clinical study, a control group would have to undergo sham treatment, or a placebo, for results to be compared with those of genuine acupuncture.

Some studies have concluded that acupuncture offers similar benefits to a patient as a placebo, but others have indicated that there are some real benefits.

The Effectiveness of Acupuncture for Pain

Research on acupuncture’s effectiveness for pain management has yielded promising results. Here is a summary of what the research shows:

1. Back or Neck Pain: Acupuncture has demonstrated effectiveness in relieving both back and neck pain. Many individuals with chronic back pain or neck pain have reported reduced pain levels and improved quality of life after receiving acupuncture treatments.

2. Knee Pain Associated with Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease, can cause knee pain and discomfort. Acupuncture has been found to be beneficial in reducing knee pain associated with osteoarthritis. It may improve joint function and provide relief for individuals with this condition.

3. Postoperative Pain: Acupuncture has been employed as a complementary approach for managing postoperative pain. Some studies have shown that acupuncture can help individuals recover more comfortably from surgical procedures, reducing the need for conventional pain medications.

4. Joint Pain in Breast Cancer Patients Using Aromatase Inhibitors: Aromatase inhibitors are medications used in breast cancer treatment that can lead to joint pain and discomfort. Acupuncture has been investigated as a potential therapy to alleviate joint pain in breast cancer patients taking these drugs. Research suggests that acupuncture may offer relief and improve the overall well-being of these individuals.

5. Long-Term Benefits: A comprehensive analysis of data from 20 studies, involving 6,376 participants with various painful conditions (including back pain, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and headaches), demonstrated that the positive effects of acupuncture can persist for up to a year after the completion of treatment. This suggests that acupuncture may provide lasting pain relief for many individuals.

While research suggests that acupuncture can be effective for pain management in various contexts, individual responses to acupuncture can vary. Some people may experience significant pain relief, while others may have a more modest response. Acupuncture is often considered as part of a holistic pain management approach, and its effectiveness may be influenced by factors such as the specific type of pain, the skill of the acupuncturist, and the patient’s individual physiology and preferences.

If you are considering acupuncture for pain management, it is advisable to consult with a qualified acupuncturist who can assess your specific condition and develop a tailored treatment plan. Additionally, maintaining open communication with your healthcare provider is essential to ensure that acupuncture is used safely and effectively as part of your pain management strategy.

The Effectiveness of Acupuncture for Health Conditions Other than Pain

Beyond its applications in pain management, acupuncture has been the subject of research for numerous other health conditions. Here is a summary of what the research shows for some of these conditions:

1. Seasonal Allergy Symptoms: Acupuncture has shown promise in helping to alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms. Research suggests that acupuncture may reduce the severity of symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes, providing relief for individuals with allergies to pollen or other environmental allergens.

2. Stress Incontinence in Women: Acupuncture has been studied as a potential treatment for stress incontinence in women. Findings suggest that acupuncture may contribute to the improvement of urinary control and reduce episodes of stress incontinence, which can be particularly beneficial for women experiencing this condition.

3. Nausea and Vomiting in Cancer Treatment: Acupuncture has demonstrated effectiveness in managing nausea and vomiting associated with cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. It can be a valuable complementary therapy for cancer patients, helping to reduce treatment-related side effects and improve their overall well-being.

4. Asthma: While acupuncture may not significantly improve lung function in individuals with asthma, studies indicate that it can help alleviate symptoms and enhance the quality of life for asthma sufferers. Acupuncture may reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks and improve patients’ ability to manage their condition.

It’s important to note that while acupuncture has shown potential benefits for these conditions, individual responses to treatment can vary. The effectiveness of acupuncture may depend on factors such as the specific condition being treated, the frequency and duration of acupuncture sessions, and individual patient characteristics.

Before considering acupuncture as a treatment option for any health condition, it is advisable to consult with a qualified acupuncturist and discuss your specific needs and goals. Additionally, maintaining open communication with your healthcare provider is essential to ensure that acupuncture is used safely and effectively as part of your overall healthcare plan.

Research carried out in Germany has shown that acupuncture may help relieve tension headaches and migraines.

The NCCIH note that it has been proven to helpTrusted Source in cases of:

They list additional disorders that may benefit from acupuncture, but which require further scientific confirmation.

In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed a number of conditions in which they say acupuncture has been proven effective.

These include:

  • high and low blood pressure
  • chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • some gastric conditions, including peptic ulcer
  • painful periods
  • dysentery
  • allergic rhinitis
  • facial pain
  • morning sickness
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • sprains
  • tennis elbow
  • sciatica
  • dental pain
  • reducing the risk of stroke
  • inducing labor

Other conditions for which the WHO say that acupuncture may help but more evidence is needed include:

  • fibromyalgia
  • neuralgia
  • post-operative convalescence
  • substance, tobaccor and alcohol dependence
  • spine pain
  • stiff neck
  • vascular dementia
  • whooping cough, or pertussis
  • Tourette syndrome

The WHO also suggest that it may help treat a number of infections, including some urinary tract infections and epidemic hemorrhagic fever.

They point out, however, that “only national health authorities can determine the diseases, symptoms, and conditions for which acupuncture treatment can be recommended.”


Acupuncture can be beneficial in that:

  • Performed correctly, it is safe.
  • There are very few side effects.
  • It can be effectively combined with other treatments.
  • It can control some types of pain.
  • It may help patients for whom pain medications are not suitable.

The NCCIH advise people not to use acupuncture instead of seeing a conventional health care provider.

What to expect

According to traditional Chinese medical theory, acupuncture points are located on meridians, through which vital energy runs. This energy is known as “qi” or “chi.”

An acupuncturist will examine the patient and assess their condition, insert one or more thin, sterile needles, and offer advice on self-care or other complementary therapies, such as Chinese herbs.

The patient will be asked to lie down on their back, front, or one side, depending on where the needles are to be inserted. The acupuncturist should use single-use, disposable, sterile needles. As each needle is inserted, the patient may feel a very brief stinging or tingling sensation.

After the needle is inserted, there is occasionally a dull ache at the base of the needle that then subsides. Acupuncture is usually relatively painless.

Sometimes the needles are heated or stimulated with electricity after insertion.

The needles will stay in place for between 5 and 30 minutes.

The number of treatments needed depend on the individual. A person with a chronic condition may need one to two treatments a week over several months. An acute problem normally improves after 8 to 12 sessions.

Is Acupuncture Safe?

Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by a qualified and trained practitioner using sterile needles. However, there are some important safety considerations to keep in mind:

1. Sterile Needles: The use of sterile acupuncture needles is essential to prevent infections and other complications. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles as medical devices and requires that they be sterile and labeled for single use only. It is crucial to ensure that your acupuncturist uses disposable, single-use needles and follows strict hygiene practices.

2. Qualified Practitioner: Choosing a qualified and licensed acupuncturist is essential for safety. Look for practitioners who have completed accredited training programs and are certified or licensed in acupuncture by a recognized regulatory body. A reputable practitioner will have the necessary knowledge and skills to provide safe and effective treatments.

3. Personalized Treatment: Your acupuncturist should conduct a thorough evaluation of your health and medical history before starting acupuncture treatment. This assessment helps tailor the treatment plan to your specific needs and ensures that any underlying medical conditions are considered.

4. Communication: Open and honest communication with your acupuncturist is vital. Inform them about any existing medical conditions, allergies, medications, or concerns you may have. This information helps ensure that the treatment plan is safe and appropriate for you.

5. Adverse Effects: While serious complications from acupuncture are rare, they can occur when acupuncture is not delivered properly. These complications may include infections, punctured organs, and injury to the central nervous system. Be aware of any unusual or severe reactions during or after treatment and report them to your acupuncturist or healthcare provider.

In summary, acupuncture can be safe and effective when administered by a qualified practitioner using sterile needles and following appropriate protocols. To maximize safety, choose a reputable acupuncturist, prioritize hygiene, and maintain open communication about your health and any concerns you may have during treatment. If you have specific medical conditions or are considering acupuncture as part of a treatment plan, consult with your healthcare provider to ensure that it is a suitable and safe option for you.


All therapies have risks as well as benefits.

The possible risks of acupuncture are:

  • It is dangerous if a patient has a bleeding disorder or takes blood thinners.
  • Bleeding, bruising, and soreness may occur at the insertion sites.
  • Unsterilized needles may infect the patient.
  • In rare cases, a needle may break and damage an internal organ.
  • When inserted deeply into the chest or upper back, there is a risk of collapsed lung, but this is very rare.

The United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate acupuncture needles as medical devices. Their manufacture and labelling needs to meet certain standards. The needles must be sterile, nontoxic, and labelled for one use only, by a licensed practitioner.

As with any complementary therapy, it is advisable to use it alongside conventional treatments in cases of chronic or severe illness.

Is Acupuncture Covered by Health Insurance?

Acupuncture coverage by health insurance can vary widely depending on the insurance provider, the specific policy, and the condition being treated. Here are some key points regarding acupuncture coverage:

1. Insurance Policies Vary: Health insurance policies differ in their coverage of acupuncture. Some policies may include acupuncture as part of their benefits, while others may exclude it or provide coverage only for specific conditions.

2. Condition-Based Coverage: Coverage for acupuncture is often condition-based. Some insurers may cover acupuncture for certain conditions, such as chronic pain or nausea, while excluding coverage for other conditions.

3. Increasing Coverage: An analysis of data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey in the United States showed an increase in the share of adult acupuncturist visits with insurance coverage over the years. In 2010–2011, 41.1 percent of visits had insurance coverage, which increased to 50.2 percent in 2018–2019.

4. Medicare Coverage: Medicare, the federal health insurance program primarily for individuals aged 65 and older, began covering acupuncture for the treatment of chronic low-back pain in 2020. Under this coverage, up to 12 acupuncture visits are allowed, with an additional 8 visits available if there is improvement.

5. Medicaid Coverage: Medicaid, the joint federal and state program that provides health coverage for eligible low-income individuals, may offer acupuncture coverage in some states but not in others. Coverage and eligibility criteria can vary significantly from one state to another.

6. Private Insurance: Private health insurance providers may offer acupuncture coverage as part of their policies. It’s essential to review the terms and conditions of your specific insurance plan to determine whether acupuncture is covered and under what circumstances.

7. Preauthorization and Referral: Some insurance plans may require preauthorization or a referral from a healthcare provider before covering acupuncture treatments. Be sure to check with your insurance provider to understand any such requirements.

If you are considering acupuncture as a treatment option and want to determine if it is covered by your health insurance, it is advisable to contact your insurance provider directly. They can provide you with detailed information about your policy’s coverage, any applicable deductibles, copayments, or limitations, and whether you need a referral or preauthorization for acupuncture services. Additionally, your acupuncturist may be able to assist you in navigating insurance coverage if they are in-network with your provider.

Do Acupuncturists Need to be Licensed?

Yes, in the United States, most states require acupuncturists to be licensed to practice acupuncture legally. However, the specific requirements for licensing can vary from state to state. Licensing ensures that acupuncturists have met certain educational and training standards and have demonstrated competency in the practice of acupuncture.

If you are considering receiving acupuncture treatment or seeking the services of an acupuncturist, it is essential to verify that they are licensed in your state. You can typically check the licensing status of acupuncturists by contacting your state’s regulatory or licensing board for acupuncture or complementary and alternative medicine.

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) is a national organization that provides certification for acupuncturists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. Many states use NCCAOM certification as part of their licensing requirements.

To ensure that you receive safe and effective acupuncture treatment, it is advisable to choose a licensed acupuncturist who meets the qualifications and standards established by your state’s licensing authority. This helps ensure that the practitioner has the necessary training and expertise to provide acupuncture services safely and effectively.

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