Acupuncture is a treatment that uses very thin steel needles inserted into the skin to stimulate specific points in the body. The goal is to relieve a health condition or symptom, such as pain. The practice comes from traditional Chinese medicine. Scientific studies have confirmed its effectiveness for some conditions.
Acupuncture can treat many types of health issues. Most often, people use it to relieve chronic (long-term) pain, such as:
. Back pain, neck pain or muscle pain.
. Headaches and migraines.
. Knee pain.
. Menstrual cramps.
. Sports injuries.
Other conditions acupuncture may help include:
. Cancer and cancer treatment side effects.
. Face pain and other nerve discomfort.
. Immune system problems.
. Irritable bowel syndrome.
. Menopause and hot flashes.
. Pregnancy discomforts.
. Repetitive strain disorders and overuse syndrome.
Acupuncturists who follow more traditional/ancient Chinese principles focus exclusively on directing the flow of qi (pronounced “chee”), or energy, through the body. Other practitioners apply Western medicine, using the needles to stimulate the body’s systems. Many acupuncturists use a combination of both approaches.
Another acupuncture approach treats myofascial pain. This common condition involves muscles and their connective tissue. When muscles are stressed, strained or injured, they often form trigger points — tight, painful knots. A trigger point in one muscle can create pain in a different area of the body (referred pain).
Acupuncturists can use trigger point therapy to ease myofascial pain. They stimulate certain points on the body to relieve the pain.
When a qualified professional performs acupuncture, it has very few complications or side effects.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles. The agency requires that all needles be steel, solid, sterile, nontoxic and properly labeled. Only qualified professionals may use acupuncture needles. After one use, practitioners throw the needles away.
Receiving acupuncture from unqualified practitioners can be harmful. An untrained provider or one who uses nonsterile needles can cause infections, organ punctures and central nervous system injuries.
Chinese medicine calls the energy that flows through the body qi. Chinese medicine practitioners believe qi disruptions create imbalances in the body’s energy that lead to illness.
Some forms of acupuncture aim to rebalance qi with needles that touch acupuncture points (acupoints) throughout the body. There are hundreds of acupoints in the body along 14 major meridians, also called energy-carrying channels.
The needles stimulate the body’s existing systems to:
. React to an illness or symptom.
. Rebalance the body.
. Release natural chemicals, such as endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and neurotransmitters, chemicals that control nerve impulses.
During the first appointment, the acupuncturist will talk to you about your condition. Then the provider will examine your body for areas that will react to acupuncture. The acupuncturist will tap the needles into points into your skin throughout the body.
The needles are sterile, disposable and as thin as a human hair. An acupuncturist inserts needles at various depths, from a fraction of an inch to a couple of inches. The needles stay in for a few minutes or as long as 20 minutes.
You may feel a small prick with each needle. It’s less painful than the feeling when you get a vaccine or blood draw. Acupuncture needles are much thinner than medical needles, and they are solid, not hollow.
The needles may cause some muscle sensations, such as dull ache or tingling. Your practitioner will ask you to report when you feel a deep heaviness or numbness. Those sensations usually mean the treatment is working.
Acupuncture has a calming effect, so you may want to get a ride home from your appointments — especially the first one. If that’s not possible, try to rest for five to 10 minutes before you drive. Your practitioner may suggest that you take it easy for a day or two after each session.
The number of treatments depends on your condition, its severity and how your body responds. Most patients have an appointment once a week. Others get treatment more or less often, depending on how long the effects last. Your acupuncturist will recommend a schedule that is right for you.
You may not get the full benefits of acupuncture on the first or second treatment. If you decide to try acupuncture, you should give it at least five treatments.
Do not use acupuncture to delay seeing a medical healthcare provider about a health problem. In most cases, people use acupuncture along with other treatments. For example, someone with chronic pain will likely take medications and also get acupuncture. Someone with cancer would still receive cancer treatment but also use acupuncture.
You should continue taking your prescribed medications, no matter how good acupuncture makes you feel.