What You Need to Know About Acupuncture

Woman receiving acupuncture. Practitioner is placing fine needles alongside either side of her spine.

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In an acupuncture treatment, a practitioner carefully inserts fine needles to stimulate specific points on your body. A form of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been practiced for at least 2,500 years.

Acupuncture is used worldwide, but first became popular in the U.S. in the 1970s. It’s thought to boost neurological, immune function, and overall health, among other potential benefits. Research has shown this complementary medicine therapy to help with a wide range of conditions, including osteoarthritis, chronic pain, and side effects of cancer therapy, among others.

Let’s take a closer look at what acupuncture may help with, how it works, as well as the side effects of this longstanding treatment.

What Is Acupuncture?

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe the body has 12 meridians, which are pathways of energy, or Qi (pronounced “chi”). These pathways link specific points of the body, or acupuncture points. Placing fine needles into the skin at the points and stimulating them with heat or electricity is thought to improve the flow of this energy, boosting overall physical and mental health.  

Types of Acupuncture

Acupuncture techniques target specific points of the body, with some techniques addressing specific health problems. Depending on your needs, your practitioner may insert needles into several parts of the body, including:

  • Ears (auricular)
  • Scalp
  • Face
  • Hands
  • Nose
  • Wrists and ankles

Additional Treatments

Alongside dry needling, there are a few other acupuncture methods:

  • Electroacupuncture: Acupuncture needles are wired to deliver low levels of electrical current to your acupuncture points.
  • Moxibustion: Needling stimulation of certain points may be augmented with heat application. In moxibustion, practitioners will burn certain herbs close to targeted acupuncture points.
  • Cupping: With this treatment, a special heated cup is pulled over points of tension in the body. This creates suction, increasing blood flow to the area and releasing the tension.   

 What Are the Benefits of Acupuncture?

Within traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is thought to benefit spirit, mind, and body, especially alongside other practices, such as herbalism. Clinically, healthcare providers use acupuncture to treat or assist in the treatment of pain as well as a wide range of health conditions.

Regular acupuncture treatments may help relieve pain in the back, neck, and joints, such as in osteoarthritis. It can also treat pain related to conditions like myofascial pain syndrome (pain in the musculoskeletal system) and neuropathy (nerve pain). Some people may receive acupuncture to manage pain after surgery.

The treatment is becoming increasingly common in managing the side effects of cancer treatment, including nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth.

Acupuncture may also help treat or relieve:

  • Migraines or other types of headaches
  • Sciatica (pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the leg)
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Urinary incontinence (urine leaking from the bladder)
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Asthma
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Quitting cigarettes and managing other addictive behaviors
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Insomnia or problems sleeping

How Does Acupuncture Work?

The exact mechanism of acupuncture is unknown. However, some evidence shows that stimulating acupuncture points affects the body in several ways:

  • Nervous system function: Research has found treatments to change the activity of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). Acupuncture stimulates the release of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and hormones, and modulates the levels of cytokines, chemicals associated with immune function.
  • Connective tissue: Acupuncture alters the activity of sensory neurons in the connective tissue, just below the skin, and the muscles. This may explain some of the pain relieving and anti-inflammatory effects of treatment, although more research is needed.  
  • Nonspecific effects: Some benefits arise from treatment without a clear physical action in place. Similar to a placebo effect, a person may experience benefits due to belief in the treatment or acupuncturist, or other aspects of treatment. Comparisons of sham (false) treatments with actual ones have shown nonspecific effects to influence outcomes.

Does Acupuncture Really Work?

Acupuncture has earned its place as a complementary and alternative medicine technique, especially for the management of pain and cancer treatment side effects. While some evidence is mixed or inconclusive, a growing body of research is noting benefits for a range of conditions.

Neck and Back Pain

Some studies suggest acupuncture, typically alongside other treatments, is effective for chronic back and neck pain. A review of 13 trials of this treatment, representing data from 20,827 people with chronic pain, found acupuncture superior to both sham treatment and no treatment.

The American College of Physicians, a national association of family doctors, now recommends acupuncture as a first-line treatment for low back pain and an alternative to medications.

There is also some evidence that acupuncture may help with sciatica, a common cause of lower back pain. A review of data from 12 studies noted positive results for pain and effectiveness, but stressed that more research was needed to confirm the benefits.  

Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Research has shown acupuncture to be effective in managing certain side effects of cancer treatment, including:

  • Pain: A range of studies have found acupuncture to relieve pain caused by cancer or following surgery. However, some of these studies have been very small or haven't found an effect.
  • Aromotase inhibitor side effects: Drugs called aromatase inhibitors, used to treat breast cancer, can cause joint pain. One study of 226 women with early-stage cancer found six to eight weeks of acupuncture helped reduce this symptom.
  • Chemotherapy side effects: Acupuncture is shown to be very effective in reducing nausea, vomiting, hot flashes and other symptoms of chemotherapy. It’s become a standard therapy alongside medications or other approaches used during cancer treatment.
  • Xerostomia (dry mouth): Chronic dry mouth can be an issue if you have head or neck cancer, especially following radiation therapy. Several studies have found regular acupuncture to improve saliva flow and prevent the issue at three and six months of treatment.
  • Neuropathy: Nerve pain, numbness, and tingling, or neuropathy, is a common chemotherapy side effect. Studies have found acupuncture to help reduce both the symptoms and the amount of pain medications taken for neuropathy.

Postoperative Pain

A number of studies have noted acupuncture can help with pain and discomfort after surgery. A review of studies found significant evidence that regular treatments can help with pain and lower your use of analgesic (pain-killing) opioid drugs in recovery.

Acupuncture can also help reduce nausea and vomiting after surgery and anesthesia.


Among other common causes of pain is osteoarthritis, caused by inflammation of the joints. In a review of data from 2,376 participants, acupuncture was found about as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like Ibuprofen in reducing symptoms. The most robust results have been seen with knee osteoarthritis.


Several studies have shown acupuncture to help with hot flashes due to menopause, called vasomotor symptoms. In one study of 209 post and perimenopausal women, the frequency of hot flashes at six months was 36.7% lower for women who had acupuncture than those who did not.

Migraine and Headache

Based off of a wide-ranging review of 22 studies that included data from nearly 5,000 participants, acupuncture was found to reduce the frequency of migraine attacks. The study also revealed a small but significant difference between treatments and sham procedures (inactive treatments meant to act as a placebo).

The same researchers as above also found acupuncture effective for tension headaches. People who received acupuncture for tension headaches had significantly fewer headache attacks in both chronic and severe episodic cases. The researchers did, however, caution that more research is needed.


Research has found acupuncture effective in relieving stuffiness, congestion, and itchiness caused by seasonal allergy, or allergic rhinitis. Analysis of data from 4,413 people with moderate to severe allergies showed acupuncture reduced symptoms and improved overall quality of life. However, more research is needed to confirm this benefit.


Studies have found some evidence that acupuncture can be effective in treating depression. A review of research found a small to moderate effect across 64 studies. However, the authors noted much of the existing research is of low or mixed quality and urged caution when interpreting their results.

What Are the Side Effects of Acupuncture?

Generally, acupuncture is safe and leads to few side effects when performed by a licensed professional. Acupuncturists use sterile needles and undergo extensive training.

Most people can receive acupuncture, and reported complications are rare. However, the treatment may be unsafe if you have a bleeding disorder or allergy to metal.

You may experience some minor side effects during or after treatment. Possible side effects of acupuncture include:

  • Soreness or pain during treatment
  • Bruising
  • Fatigue
  • Sleepiness
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Minor bleeding
  • Local infection

More severe complications rarely occur and are typically the result of getting acupuncture from someone without the proper training or a license, or who is using non-sterile needles. Complications may include:

  • Hepatitis
  • Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections
  • Damage to the pneumothorax (tissue around the lungs)
  • Internal bleeding  
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Heart injury
  • Nausea and vomiting

What Should You Consider Before Getting Acupuncture?

Before getting acupuncture, you'll want to consider how beneficial and affordable the treatments will be for you. It's also important to ensure you’re with the right practitioner. If you’re thinking about starting treatment, there are several steps to take:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider: If you are considering acupuncture to help with side effects of cancer treatment or chronic pain, ask your provider’s opinion. Acupuncture is not a replacement for standard medical care.
  • Find a qualified acupuncturist: Learn as much as you can about a potential acupuncturist’s training, licensure, and experience. Make sure they are licensed in your state.
  • Ask about collaboration: See if acupuncturists you’re considering are willing to collaborate with your healthcare provider and other members of your medical team.
  • Ask about experience: Make sure practitioners you work with are trained in and have experience with treating cases like yours.
  • Talk about your health: Be ready to talk about your health status and medical history with your acupuncturist; prepare lists of any medications you’re taking.
  • Think about costs: Depending on your insurance plan, the condition treated, and the practice you work with, acupuncture may be covered by insurance. However, this isn’t always the case. It’s important to talk to your insurance company to understand how much you’ll be paying.

What to Expect

Typically, acupuncture appointments last between 20 and 60 minutes. Prior to your first appointment, you’ll have a consultation and physical assessment with the acupuncturist. Come ready to talk about your health and any symptoms you’re having.

When you’re ready, you’ll be asked to sit or lie down, and the practitioner will insert very thin needles into specific acupuncture points. While the needles are in, you may feel a tingling or a dull ache in treated areas. Let your acupuncturist know if you feel significant pain.

Depending on your case, the needles stay in position anywhere from five to 30 minutes. You’ll be asked to relax and breathe while they’re in place. Then, the acupuncturist with remove the needles. There’s no recovery time needed after treatment.

A Quick Review

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves placing thin needles into specific points in the body. The practice is thought to support immunity and overall health.

Acupuncture is used to help in the treatment of pain conditions, cancer treatment side effects, allergies, and a range of other issues. Though the evidence for some applications is mixed, acupuncture is typically safe and causes few side effects.

If you’re thinking about getting acupuncture, be sure to work with a licensed professional and talk to your healthcare provider first.

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17 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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