All About Acupuncture
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that involves penetrating the skin with fine needles.
By Madeline Vann, MPH
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
The Chinese developed a method of medical treatment using needles to balance streams of energy in the body thousands of years ago. This form of alternative medicine, called acupuncture, is based on a system of energy meridians (lines) that connect vital organs. According to traditional Chinese medicine, points along these energy pathways can be manipulated to correct imbalance, which is the cause of many symptoms of illness.
Acupuncture as Alternative Medicine: How it Works
Very thin, sterile metal needles are inserted in the skin at specific spots along the meridians to redirect or rebalance energy, according to Lixing Lao, PhD, professor of family and community medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and past co-president of the Society for Acupuncture Research.
For people who primarily use Western medicine, the pressure points involved in acupuncture treatment may seem unrelated. For example, a study assessing the use of acupuncture to treat dry mouth in cancer patients focused on pressure points at the ears, chin, index finger, forearm, and leg.
Dr. Lao says there have been vast technological improvements in acupuncture since the first stone needle was carved about 4,000 years ago — today’s needles cause little if any discomfort in most people. Indeed, close to 3.1 million U.S. adults use acupuncture in a given year.
“I’ve had so many needles in me!” exclaims Marian Gold Brenner, a 66-year-old resident of Baltimore, who began undergoing acupuncture 20 years ago to treat her migraines while she was living in France.
Today, the former dancer and yoga instructor seeks weekly acupuncture treatments to manage her fibromyalgia, a condition that causes muscle and ligament pain, as well as other health concerns that arise. “There’s a little discoloration where the needles are put in each week, and I can press on those points to help myself.” But, she says that the needles don't hurt as they're inserted and don't go in too deeply. Brenner says her family members have also had success with short-term acupuncture treatments for knee pain and recovery from a car wreck.
Acupuncture as Alternative Medicine: What's the Point?
Researchers continue to explore the use of acupuncture for health. Here are some recent study results:
- Increases in vitro fertilization (IVF) success. Use of acupuncture improves the chances of successful IVF implantation. Lao says acupuncture can be used to reduce infertility in women and men.
- Eases pain. A large study determined that acupuncture relieves knee pain and improves function among people who have osteoarthritis. Acupuncture is also used as a treatment for pain related to fibromyalgia and chronic low-back and neck pain.
- Complements cancer treatments. Acupuncture has been found to help relieve many side effects of cancer treatments, including nausea and appetite loss. A recent study of 19 patients being treated for head and neck cancer found that acupuncture relieved the severe dry mouth resulting from their treatment.
- Improves experiences with surgery. Acupuncture before surgery has been shown to reduce the risk of nausea and vomiting from anesthesia and may reduce the amount of pain medication needed after surgery.
Acupuncture can also be used to relieve chronic pain and to address women’s health concerns, such as hot flashes during menopause.
Acupuncture as Alternative Medicine: Finding a Practitioner
As with any medical or complementary treatment, you want to find a qualified acupuncture practitioner. Most states require a license to practice acupuncture, but the requirements for licensing may vary.
Expect your treatments to last for about 20 minutes, twice a week initially, after which you may move to once-a-week sessions or every other week to maintain recovery. Safety is always a concern — there is a slight risk of skin damage or infection if the needles are not handled correctly. Always make sure that your acupuncturist is using new, single-use, sterile needles.