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Sep 29, 2021
6 min read

Acupuncture: what is it, does it work, benefits, cost

Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that uses thin needles to release pressure points. It can be effective for helping manage some conditions, like chronic pain. Benefits include reduced stress, decreased muscle tension, and pain management. The cost of treatment varies, but typically costs between $50–300. Some insurances may cover treatment for certain conditions.

steve silvestro

Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ashley Braun, RD, MPH

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

If you’ve never tried acupuncture before, it may sound intimidating. Inserting needles into the skin may sound uncomfortable, but most people experience no discomfort with treatment. Acupuncture treatment is based on traditional Chinese medicine practices, which aims to balance energy and may help with managing certain medical conditions. Keep reading to learn more about acupuncture and how it works. 

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What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an integrative medicine treatment that uses short, thin needles inserted into the skin to treat health conditions. It is believed that acupuncture may target nerve-rich areas to help stimulate tissues, circulation, the central nervous system, and organs (Van Hal, 2021). 

Traditional Chinese philosophy is based on energy and the balance of life-giving forces in the body, like qi (pronounced chee). They believe when qi flows well, a person is healthy physically and mentally. According to this belief, when qi becomes blocked and doesn’t flow correctly, the person becomes ill. Some types of acupuncture focus on the stimulation of energies in the body in order to unblock qi (Van Hal, 2021). 

So, traditionally, one of the goals of acupuncture is to help promote the flow of energy through the body. These specific points are called meridians, and Chinese medicine teaches 12 main meridians are located throughout the body. 

Acupuncture points or acupoints in the muscles may help relax tight muscles and release tension. 

Your practitioner may combine your medical acupuncture with other types of treatments, like acupressure, moxibustion (a traditional Chinese therapy that involves burning mugwort leaves on the body), and cupping therapy.

When to use acupuncture

Acupuncture treatments can be helpful for a wide variety of conditions. It may help to relieve chronic pain or injuries like (Van Hal, 2021):

  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Knee pain
  • Tension headaches
  • Musculoskeletal pain

Here are some of the other conditions acupuncture may be able to help (Pei, 2020; Yang, 2021; Van Hal, 2021):

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Migraines
  • Postoperative nausea and vomiting (PONV)
  • Pregnancy-related nausea
  • Hot flashes
  • Allergies
  • Tendinitis (tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, jumper’s knee, etc.)
  • Cancer treatment side effects (fatigue, nausea, pain, etc)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Reduce labor pain
  • May aid weight loss and reduce obesity
  • Anxiety
  • Dental pain
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Infertility
  • Boost the immune system

Benefits of acupuncture

When performed correctly, acupuncture may help you manage certain medical conditions, prevent symptoms, and promote a better quality of life long-term. Acupuncture is fairly low risk when done by licensed professionals, and there are very few possible side effects. So, acupuncture can be combined with other treatment plans to help support your health with minimal health risks. Still, it’s essential that you let your healthcare provider know if you are doing acupuncture, in case there are any possible interactions or risks when combined with your other medical treatments.

Here are some of the benefits of regular acupuncture treatments:

  • Reduces symptoms of chronic inflammation disorders: Many health disorders are the result of chronic inflammation in the body, and acupuncture may help (Bai, 2020). Treatments can help prevent chronic conditions, manage inflammatory conditions like arthritis, and help you feel better. 
  • Reduces stress: A 2017 research study found that acupuncture helped to reduce perceived stress in students and staff at a large university (Schroder, 2017). If you’re undergoing a lot of stress, acupuncture may be able to help. 
  • Relieves muscle tension and pain management: Many studies support the benefits of acupuncture and pain relief. Your health insurance may even cover acupuncture treatment for multiple types of pain, like knee and back pain (Van Hal, 2021).
  • Helps with blood pressure levels: Research suggests acupuncture combined with other treatment options may lead to greater blood pressure control and reduced hypertension. However, more research is needed to confirm this (Zhao, 2015).

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is a minimally invasive procedure performed by a licensed acupuncturist. The acupuncturist targets trigger points and reflexology points throughout the body to relieve your symptoms. 

During the initial consultation, an acupuncturist will ask questions about your symptoms and concerns. They will examine you and assess your condition. This information helps them develop a treatment plan with an appropriate number of treatments for unique health concerns. 

Depending on what area of your body the acupuncture needles will be inserted, you may be asked to lie down on your back, side, or front. Acupuncture is done using single-use, sterile needles that are disposed of after your session. 

Typically, they are thin and long needles, although the size may vary. The needles may be created using a variety of materials, including silver and stainless steel.

After your initial consultation with an acupuncturist, they’ll work with you to develop a treatment plan. Often people receive treatment two or three times a week for the first few weeks to months of treatment. Over time, people may transition to fewer sessions, like once a week or every other week, to maintain progress.

Typically, an acupuncture treatment will include:

  • Needle insertion: Treatment uses thin needles, so there is usually minimal discomfort when the needle is inserted. Some people don’t feel the needles at all. The needles are inserted at varying depths depending on the trigger point your acupuncturist targets. Typically, between 5–20 needles may be used during one treatment. You may feel a mild aching sensation during treatment.
  • Manipulation of the needle: Your acupuncturist may gently move or spin the needle to stimulate the trigger point. Sometimes heat or electrical stimulation (electroacupuncture) is added to the needles.
  • Removal of the needle: The needle may be left in place for about 10 to 20 minutes while you remain lying still and relaxing. Then your practitioner will carefully remove the needles. Usually, there is no discomfort when the needles are removed.

There is typically no downtime or recovery time needed after the procedure. You’ll be able to return to your normal activities after treatment. People respond to treatment differently. Some may feel energized after treatment, while others may feel relaxed. It’s also common to feel a little tired after an acupuncture session.

Sometimes, your acupuncturist may recommend other complementary medicine to support your treatment, such as herbal supplements. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have any questions about supplements and to make sure they won’t interact with other medications you may be taking or conditions you may have.

Effectiveness of acupuncture

Acupuncture has been used for thousands to help promote health and treat conditions. It’s believed to be effective. Still, the research is conflicting about how effective the treatment actually is for various conditions (Zhao, 2015). 

Because acupuncture treatments require the insertion of needles, it can be more difficult to study. People in studies know whether or not they are receiving treatment. Sometimes this leads to a placebo effect, where people notice benefits simply because they are receiving treatment. In some clinical trials, people experienced the same benefits from acupuncture treatment as sham acupuncture (fake treatments), which means the placebo effect may have played a large role.

Still, some research supports the benefits of acupuncture for some medical conditions and overall well-being. 

Risks of acupuncture

The use of acupuncture is considered fairly safe. Still, all types of therapies carry some risks. The possible risks or side effects of acupuncture include (Van Hal, 2021):

  • Bleeding, bruising, or soreness
  • High risk of bleeding for individuals with bleedings disorders or taking blood thinners
  • Unsterilized needles could cause an infection (make sure your acupuncturist is only using single-use needles in sterile packaging).
  • If needles are placed incorrectly or attempted by a non-licensed individual, they could damage an internal organ. 

It’s important that when complementary and alternative medicine are used, they are used alongside conventional western treatments. Acupuncture care shouldn’t replace regular visits with your healthcare provider. 

How to find an acupuncturist

The simplest way to find an acupuncturist is to ask family and friends if they have one that they recommend. Your healthcare providers may be able to make a referral to a licensed practitioner. 

If you don’t have time to ask or they don’t know of one, you can search online for a licensed acupuncturist. The credentials listed after their name will be LAc.

The National Certification Commission For Acupuncture And Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) has a directory of licensed acupuncturists. You can use their website to find a practitioner in your area or look up an individual to verify their credentials. 

Cost of acupuncture treatments

The cost of acupuncture treatments will vary based on where you live, the type of facility, and the level of expertise of your practitioner. 

The initial consultation is usually more expensive than follow-up treatments. The cost of initial assessments may range from $75–300, and follow-up treatments could cost $50–150 for each session. Some insurance providers cover acupuncture for certain conditions, so be sure to ask if you have coverage. Since acupuncture is low risk and may help multiple conditions, it may be worth trying if you’re having trouble managing a health condition with conventional treatment alone. If you’re curious about acupuncture treatments, talk to a licensed acupuncture therapist. 

References

  1. Bai, H., Xu, S., Wu, Q., Xu, S., Sun, K., Wu, J., et al. (2020). Clinical events associated with acupuncture intervention for the treatment of chronic inflammation associated disorders. Mediators of Inflammation, 2020, 2675785. doi: 10.1155/2020/2675785. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7336212/
  2. Pei, L., Geng, H., Guo, J., Yang, G., Wang, L., Shen, R., et al. (2020). Effect of acupuncture in patients with irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized controlled trial. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 95(8), 1671–1683. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2020.01.042. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32499125/
  3. Schroeder, S., Burnis, J., Denton, A., Krasnow, A., Raghu, T. S., & Mathis, K. (2017). Effectiveness of acupuncture therapy on stress in a large urban college population. Journal Of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, 10(3), 165–170. doi: 10.1016/j.jams.2017.01.002. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28712475/
  4. Van Hal, M., Dydyk, A. M., & Green M. S. Acupuncture. (2021). [Updated Jul 31, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Sep. 29, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532287/
  5. Yang, X. Y., Yang, N. B., Huang, F. F., Ren, S., & Li, Z. J. (2021). Effectiveness of acupuncture on anxiety disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Annals of General Psychiatry, 20(1), 9. doi: 10.1186/s12991-021-00327-5. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7847562/
  6. Zhao, X. F., Hu, H. T., Li, J. S., Shang, H. C., Zheng, H. Z., Niu, J. F., et al. (2015). Is acupuncture effective for hypertension? a systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS One, 10(7), e0127019. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0127019. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26207806/