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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.
Acupuncture involves placing tiny needles into the skin in different areas of the body with the intention of alleviating pain or treating various medical conditions.
Around three million Americans receive acupuncture treatments each year to treat things like arthritis, headaches, and stress (Vickers, 2012). Most studies note the pain-relieving properties of acupuncture, but this ancient practice has also been shown to have benefits for everything from allergies to insomnia.
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What is acupuncture and how does it work?
According to the original theory in Chinese medicine, acupuncture aims to rebalance a person’s qi (pronounced “chee”), or “life force.” Obstruction to the flow of this life force is believed to be the source of various ailments according to this practice, and acupuncture is supposed to alleviate it. Traditionally, the practice involves the precise placement of hair-like acupuncture needles into various areas of the body to restore a person’s natural energy flow.
If you’ve never done it before it might sound a little terrifying, but these pinpricks are so slight you should barely feel them. Once the needles have been placed, your acupuncturist may gently move them using their hands or with electrical stimulation. While it’s not for everyone, acupuncture performed by a trusted practitioner is generally safe and many people find it to be an effective way to alleviate pain and other ailments.
Benefits of acupuncture
Research suggests acupuncture has therapeutic potential for a number of health conditions including chronic pain, anxiety, and allergies. Plus, once you’re accustomed to the idea, a session of acupuncture can actually be quite relaxing.
Keep in mind that in some of the studies below you’ll see mentions of what’s called sham acupuncture. It’s common in acupuncture research to split participants into two groups: one receives the real deal while the other gets sham acupuncture––where needles are placed somewhere other than specific acupuncture points. This helps rule out the placebo effect.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the main benefits of acupuncture.
1. Relief from chronic pain
Chronic pain is the most common reason why people seek out acupuncture treatment. Studies comparing real therapy to sham acupuncture show that the technique has positive effects for many different types of pain. This includes relief from (Liu, 2015; Korostyshevskiy, 2020):
- Back pain
- Ear pain
- Migraine and headaches
- Knee pain
- Neck pain
- Osteoarthritis aches
- Shoulder pain
Following acupuncture treatment, people with chronic lower back issues also reported less pain and better function and researchers found it to be helpful as an add-on to traditional treatments (Liu, 2015).
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2. Improved sleep for people with insomnia
Insomnia is a condition where people have difficulty falling or staying asleep. Around one in 10 adults suffer from chronic insomnia and up to 35% experience it occasionally.
Many turn to sleep aids or herbal supplements to ensure they get enough shuteye each night. Research has found that when acupuncture is incorporated into a treatment plan, it improves both sleep quality and increases the amount of time people spend asleep––without the groggy side effects of some of the common medications used to treat the condition (Cao, 2009).
3. Fewer PMS symptoms
Nearly half of women experience premenstrual syndrome or PMS (Direkvand-Moghadam, 2014). PMS symptoms can range from mild to severe and include nausea, anxiety, insomnia, breast pain, and cramps.
In one small study, some women reported they completely stopped experiencing PMS after 2–4 acupuncture sessions. Overall, acupuncture shows a 77% success rate in helping with PMS symptoms (Habek, 2002).
4. Fewer headaches and migraines
Migraines are a severe, throbbing type of headache that can make it difficult to function. They’re often accompanied by additional symptoms like nausea, temporary vision loss or blind spots, and skin numbness. After 20 sessions of acupuncture delivered over a four-week period, women in one study experienced significantly fewer migraines than those who received sham acupuncture or no treatment at all (Zhao, 2017).
Acupuncture may also provide relief for people with chronic tension headaches, which last for hours and can occur multiple times a month. In several studies, acupuncture reduced the frequency of their headaches by half (Linde, 2016).
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5. Anxiety and depression relief
Women are twice as likely to experience anxiety and depression compared to men. Small studies have demonstrated that acupuncture can have beneficial effects for women with anxiety and depression when combined with other treatments, such as therapy and medication.
The most promising evidence so far is using acupuncture to relieve major depression during pregnancy. Pregnant people are often unable to take certain prescription medications due to potential side effects, so acupuncture may be a safe alternative (Sniezek, 2013).
6. Alleviating allergies
There seems to be some evidence that acupuncture can help with seasonal allergies (also known as allergic rhinitis) which affects between 20-30% of people worldwide. The results are mixed, but people with allergies have reported that acupuncture reduced symptoms like itchy eyes and runny nose, as well as improved their quality of life (Hauswald, 2014).
That said, the body of research on the benefits of acupuncture for allergies is limited. Even though results are promising, some studies suggest the effects last only on a short-term basis (Brinkhaus, 2008).
7. Pain relief for cancer patients
Research suggests acupuncture may be helpful in relieving the pain and fatigue associated with cancer. It also is shown to reduce nausea and vomiting brought on by chemotherapy. Around 3 in 10 people with cancer use acupuncture to help manage their symptoms (Lu-a, 2008; Lu-b, 2013).
How do we know if acupuncture works?
Clinical research can be problematic when it comes to a technique like acupuncture. The best studies are double-blind studies, in which neither the healthcare provider nor the patient knows who is receiving the real treatment and who is receiving a “placebo.” While this can be an easy thing to design when evaluating pills, for example, it’s a bit more problematic when it comes to acupuncture. Providers are sometimes instructed to perform “sham acupuncture” which is when they place the needles in the “wrong” spots.
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Also, many of the conditions that are being treated, like pain, for example, are subjective (meaning that they are measured by the person themselves and can change from person to person). If you want to see whether a medication treats something like acne, a treatment that’s effective would reduce the amount or severity of a person’s pimples. But measuring something like pain scientifically is more difficult.
Research seems to show that acupuncture and sham acupuncture are more effective than no treatment at all. Also, acupuncture is generally safe when performed by a trusted provider, meaning that it’s unlikely to hurt (MacPherson, 2001).
Acupuncture may be an ancient practice, but its wellness benefits are helping it gain acceptance in Western medicine as both a standalone and complementary treatment. There has been research into a range of other conditions, including fertility issues, high blood pressure, neurological problems, and more. If you are experiencing chronic pain or another condition that can be treated with acupuncture, it’s certainly worth a try. Seek a trusted provider and consult with your healthcare provider if you have any underlying conditions to see if acupuncture might be helpful for you.
- Brinkhaus, B., Witt, C. M., Jena, S., Liecker, B., Wegscheider, K., & Willich, S. N. (2008). Acupuncture in patients with allergic rhinitis: a pragmatic randomized trial. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 101(5), 535–543. doi: 10.1016/S1081-1206(10)60294-3. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19055209/
- Cao, H., Pan, X., Li, H., & Liu, J. (2009). Acupuncture for treatment of insomnia: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.), 15(11), 1171–1186. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0041. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19922248/
- Direkvand-Moghadam, A., Sayehmiri, K., Delpisheh, A., & Kaikhavandi, S. (2014). Epidemiology of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)-A systematic review and meta-analysis study. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 8(2), 106–109. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2014/8024.4021. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24701496
- Habek, D., Habek, J. C., & Barbir, A. (2002). Using acupuncture to treat premenstrual syndrome. Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 267(1), 23–26. doi: 10.1007/s00404-001-0270-7. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12410369/
- Hauswald, B., & Yarin, Y. M. (2014). Acupuncture in allergic rhinitis: A mini-review. Allergo Journal International, 23(4), 115–119. doi: 10.1007/s40629-014-0015-3. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4479426/
- Korostyshevskiy V. (2020). Possible improvements of acupuncture for knee-pain treatment outcomes through local point palpation. Medical Acupuncture, 32(5), 320–324. doi: 10.1089/acu.2020.1429. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33101577/
- Linde, K., Allais, G., Brinkhaus, B., Fei, Y., Mehring, M., Shin, B. C., et al. (2016). Acupuncture for the prevention of tension-type headache. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 4, CD007587. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007587.pub2. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27092807/
- Liu, L., Skinner, M., McDonough, S., Mabire, L., & Baxter, G. D. (2015). Acupuncture for low back pain: an overview of systematic reviews. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 328196. doi: 10.1155/2015/328196. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25821485/
- Lu-a, W., Dean-Clower, E., Doherty-Gilman, A., & Rosenthal, D. S. (2008). The value of acupuncture in cancer care. Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America, 22(4), 631–viii. doi: 10.1016/j.hoc.2008.04.005. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18638692/
- Lu-b, W., & Rosenthal, D. S. (2013). Acupuncture for cancer pain and related symptoms. Current Pain and Headache Reports, 17(3), 321. doi: 10.1007/s11916-013-0321-3. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23338773/
- MacPherson, H., Thomas, K., Walters, S., & Fitter, M. (2001). The York acupuncture safety study: prospective survey of 34 000 treatments by traditional acupuncturists. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 323(7311), 486–487. Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/323/7311/486.full.pdf
- Sniezek, D. P., & Siddiqui, I. J. (2013). Acupuncture for treating anxiety and depression in women: A clinical systematic review. Medical Acupuncture, 25(3), 164–172. doi: 10.1089/acu.2012.0900. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24761171/
- Vickers, A. J., Cronin, A. M., Maschino, A. C., Lewith, G., MacPherson, H., Foster, N. E., et al. (2012). Acupuncture for chronic pain: individual patient data meta-analysis. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172(19), 1444–1453. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3654. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22965186/
- Zhao, L., Chen, J., Li, Y., Sun, X., Chang, X., Zheng, H., et al. (2017). The long-term effect of acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, 177(4), 508–515. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.9378. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28241154/