Introduction to Acupuncture

How it works, its safety, what it treats and where to find a licensed practitioner.

Acupuncture Introduction

Acupuncture has been effectively used to relieve pain for centuries.


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According to legend, an arrow wounded an ancient Chinese soldier who was ill. The wound healed, and oddly, so did his illness. Intrigued, Chinese physicians began recording the places where stabbing wounds produced improbable healing. Their observations became acupuncture, Chinese needle therapy. After more than 2,000 years, this “alternative” therapy is more popular than ever worldwide.

Acupuncture is based on qi, the life force Chinese medicine says circulates around the body along paths called meridians. Like qi, the 14 meridians are invisible. But they pass close to the skin surface at spots (“points”) where insertion of needles or firm finger pressure (acupressure) changes the flow of qi, and heals illness. 

Because the meridians are invisible, critics have dismissed acupuncture as mysticism. But many studies demonstrate its effectiveness. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary Federal agency in the U.S. for conducting and supporting medical research, “The data supporting acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies.”

How Does Acupuncture Work?

That’s not entirely clear. But the needles stimulate the nervous system, triggering release of such compounds as endorphins, the body’s own pain-relievers — hence acupuncture’s success treating pain. According to the NIH, “Considerable evidence supports the claim that opioid peptides (opiumlike compounds) are released during acupuncture and that its analgesic (pain-relieving) effects are explained by their action.”

Acupuncture is safe — if needles are sterilized. Two British studies involving more than 65,000 people show that side effects are rare and minor, mostly slight pain on needle insertion and slight bleeding at needling sites. There were no serious side effects. The NIH agrees: “Acupuncture’s incidence of adverse reactions is substantially lower than that of many drugs and accepted medical procedures for the same conditions.”

What Does It Treat?

Acupuncture is most effective for pain conditions:

  • Arthritis. German researchers gave 294 people suffering arthritis of the knee true acupuncture, sham acupuncture (needles at non-points), or a placebo. After eight weeks the true acupuncture group reported the most pain relief.
  • Back pain. University of Maryland researchers analyzed 33 studies of true vs. sham acupuncture and placebo treatment for back pain. True acupuncture worked best.
  • Headache. Researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York treated 401 chronic headache sufferers with acupuncture or standard care. The acupuncture group reported significantly greater pain relief.Dental pain. British researchers analyzed 16 studies. Their conclusion: Acupuncture is an effective treatment for dental pain.
  • Labor pain. Swedish researchers gave 90 laboring women pain medication or the drugs plus acupuncture. The acupuncture group reported significantly less pain.
  • Post-surgical pain. University of Maryland scientists monitored use of pain medication after wisdom tooth extraction. Compared with those who did not have acupuncture, those who did used only half as much medication.
  • Fibromyalgia. Mayo Clinic scientists gave 50 fibromyalgia sufferers either true or sham acupuncture. After one month, those receiving true acupuncture reported significantly less pain, fatigue and anxiety.
  • Chronic pain. British researchers analyzed five studies of chronic knee pain involving 1,334 people. True acupuncture provided significantly more relief than sham acupuncture or placebo. 

Acupuncture also treats other conditions:

  • Addictions. Norwegian researchers gave 46 smokers either true or sham acupuncture. Those receiving true acupuncture smoked significantly fewer cigarettes. The effect lasted five years. Yale scientists gave 620 cocaine addicts either acupuncture or relaxation training. After 40 treatments over eight weeks, the acupuncture group was using significantly less cocaine.
  • Nausea. Acupuncture relieves nausea caused by surgery and chemotherapy. University of California, San Francisco, scientists have shown that acupuncture significantly reduces post-surgical nausea. And British researchers have shown that acupressure minimizes chemotherapy-induced nausea.
  • Premenstrual syndrome. Chinese scientists analyzed eight studies involving 807 women. In seven, acupuncture provided greater relief than either Western drugs or Chinese herbs.
  • Recurrent urinary tract infection. Norwegian researchers treated 67 recurrent UTI sufferers with true or sham acupuncture or no treatment. After six months, 64 percent of the no-treatment group had recurrences, and 42 percent of the sham acupuncture group, but only 15 percent of those receiving true acupuncture.
  • Asthma. Chinese researchers treated 104 asthma sufferers with standard medication or drugs plus acupuncture (10 sessions). After six months, the acupuncture group reported fewer asthma attacks and less need for drugs.
  • Angina. Japanese researchers have shown that acupuncture opens the coronary arteries 69 percent. As these arteries open, chest pain from angina decreases. Danish researchers found that acupuncture reduced the need for angina surgery by 70 percent and cut hospitalizations 90 percent.
  • Stroke. Compared with standard stroke rehabilitation, Chinese researchers have shown that adding acupuncture produces significantly greater recovery of function. University of Arizona researchers reviewed studies of acupuncture for stroke rehabilitation and concluded “acupuncture is probably much more effective than has generally been reported.”

How Do I Get Started?

Read firsthand reports of acupuncture success stories for neck and back pain, insomnia and more.

Skilled acupuncturists generally gets results in six to 12 sessions, says Efrem Korngold, L.Ac. (licensed acupuncturist), O.M.D. (Oriental medical doctor), co-author with Harriet Beinfeild, L.Ac., of Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine.

Acupuncturists are licensed in most states. For information, visit Under “Practitioners/Students,” click “Laws and Regulations” for links to state licensing regulations.

To find an acupuncturist near you, visit the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Click Find a Practitioner. Or for referrals to M.D.s who use acupuncture, visit the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. Click Find an Acupuncturist Near You.

Acupuncture typically requires payment out of pocket, but some health insurers cover it. Check your policy or ask your insurer.

Have you tried acupuncture? Whether you have or you’re just curious, share your thoughts in the comments section below. 

10/2/2008 6:12:17 PM

To Jessi Fetterling: The levels of sensation, pleasant or not, will be different for each person, depending on the points needled, symptoms, how tender the particular point is, and of course the style of the acupuncturist. Japanese needles tend to be thinner and more subtle sensation. If you are a bit queasy about needles and can find an acupuncturist specializing in Japanese, that might be your best bet. Also communication with your acupuncturist is key: if you experience pain during the procedure, say something. Share as much information about your symptoms during the intake as you can, so that your acupuncturist can use the information to needle the points that will be most effective for your treatment.

diana di gioia
9/9/2008 8:17:39 AM

Acupuncture is wonderful, but at $75 or $100 per treatment, it is out of the reach of many people. There is now a movement within the acupuncture profession to make acupuncture a lot more affordable. It's called Community Acupuncture, and began with a clinic in Portland, Oregon called Working Class Acupuncture. I have been a community acupuncturist for over two years now -- it is a way to combine my values, and my belief that health care is a right, not a privilege, with this great form of medicine. Community Acupuncturists charge on a sliding scale -- somewhere in the range of $15-$40 per visit -- and folks pay what they feel they can afford in that range. There is a non profit group, the Community Acupuncture Network, that lists community style practices around the country on its web site.

sam neil_2
8/19/2008 11:01:01 PM

Accupuncture is probably the single most beneficial "pro active" method to healing that is available. Many American doctors do not treat people in a proactive manner- many times things are reactive (after we have been diagnosed). Accupuncture has many many uses and brings the body into balance. A lot of people are fearful of accupuncture due to the word "needles". Rest assured- the needle is less painful than a bee or mosquito bite by far! People must get past fears in order ot be healed. The feeling of accupuncture is thee isnt one. People think that there is a defined pain or "feeling" of the needles and there really is no physical "feeling". The needle is so small that it never causes pain- however the sensitivity of it stimulates the nervous system and other organs for healing. I was able to get my girlfirend to try it (who was very fearful)... but even she noticed results and went back. Accupuncture IS for everyone who wants to be proactive in their health without having to rely on drugs that only cover up the symptoms of disease and pain :)

jen notti
8/19/2008 10:45:20 PM

Acupunture has been the most effective treatment that I have tryed for my pain. I have used it to treat tendonitis, knee pain, back pain, foot pain, and it also helps my circulation. Release the Qi! Unfortunatly pretty much no health insurance will cover this, they would rather pay to keep us addicted to pain killers. Anyone who has pain should try acupuncture it is much better than being on pills.

heidi hunt_2
8/19/2008 1:04:36 PM

(from Michael Castleman) Many acupuncturists attach TENS units, low-level electric current, to needles. They say it improves results. Obviously, it didn't for you. My suggestion: Next time you go for acupuncture, ask the practitioner not to use a TENS unit on you. mc

heidi hunt_2
8/19/2008 1:01:00 PM

(from Michael Castleman) When acupuncture needles are inserted, you feel little pinches. You notice them, but it doesn't hurt. Sometimes, acupuncturists attach clips to the needles and channel low-level electricity through them. This aids healing. You feel a little tingling, but no pain. mc

8/19/2008 8:44:40 AM

I have been having acupuncture for menopausal symptoms. For three years hot flashes have been the bane of my existence--I've tried hormone replacement therapy, supplements, soy, progesterone cream--you name it. Nothing worked! I was having hot flashes so bad that sometimes I thought I would pass out, and I was tired of constantly being sweaty, and yes, stinky! Long story short, I heard of an acupuncturist through a friend, I have had four treatments and she prescribed Chinese herbs for two weeks, and my symptoms are GREATLY alleviated. Usually the treatment is absolutely painless, but one treatment was slightly painful and I asked her about this--she said my system was depleted for some reason. Well, I had donated blood a couple of days before and it always takes me about a week to get back to normal afterwards. I'm going to continue treatments for a while longer. I haven't felt this good in a long time.

hlly ness
8/19/2008 7:48:36 AM

Over the past 20 plus years I've had acupuncture to relieve migraines, lower back pain, toothache and tea from different herbs, etc. to lower my blood pressure and it all worked. The only issue I had was when I went to a western dude in Montreal for acupuncture to get rid of a nasty migraine. He used the needles in conjunction with a TENS unit and I went out in worse shape than when I went in. Every other time I had great results! Acupressure seems to work for me too. I’d highly recommend trying it.

kate cusano
8/18/2008 7:19:10 PM

I have been using acupuncture for the past three years for various problems including back pain, stomach problems, shoulder injury and most recently knee pain and have had much success. A relative of mine was having some issues with anxiety and she saw my Dr. for 4 sessions with great results. In response to the needle issue -- I will say that sometimes I don't feel a thing -- and then other times I feel a tingling sensation -- like a slight current of electricity. Once in a while I experience a mild burning sensation but the little bit of occasional mild discomfort is worth every bit of healing I get from acupuncture. I am so glad I finally got the "nerve" to try it back then!!

8/18/2008 4:42:50 PM

I can't say enough positive things about acupuncture. I originally tried it two years ago to treat endometryosis. I tried it as a last ditch effort to prevent me from having a hysterectomy and wasn't sure it would work. Well, not only did it work for that, it helped my plantar fasciitis pain, my back pain and helped me loose weight and gain energy. I then took my son for pretty severe asthma and within three sessions he was off ALL medications and went through an entire cold/flu season with a nebulizer! Prior to treatment, he was on them almost daily. It works!! Not sure how, but it does.

jessie fetterling_2
8/18/2008 1:35:02 PM

I've always been very interested in acupuncture, especially after reading lots of articles about how beneficial it can be. However, I'm a little cautious about needles, and I've never met someone or found a good enough written explanation that could provide me with information about what exactly acupuncture feels like. I'm just wondering if anyone can explain the actual process because it would make me feel a lot better about actually going and doing it myself.