While some people shy away from the thought of having dozens of tiny needles inserted into their skin, enthusiasts rave about acupuncture’s potential to promote healing in their bodies—and even their minds. This ancient Chinese form of medicine is now readily available all over the world, but does it actually work?
To support some health issues, yes. There’s actually quite a bit of literature to back up the efficacy of acupuncture for specific concerns, says Dr. Steven Chee, a Los Angeles-based integrative medicine physician who is dual-trained as an MD and an acupuncturist. However, he says, acupuncture isn’t a quick fix, and shouldn’t be thought of as such: “Results are usually cumulative. I generally recommend trying acupuncture at least four times in evaluating acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating any condition.”
If you’re curious whether acupuncture might work for you, here’s what you should know.
What exactly is acupuncture, and how does it work?
Acupuncture’s efficacy is not fully understood, but there are a few theories (some of which are more rooted in philosophy and some more in science).
Acupuncture’s history has its roots in the idea of qi, which, according to proponents of this belief, is a kind of energy within our bodies. To those who believe in qi, acupuncture can help keep it aligned. Small needles are placed at specific points (called de qi), which is said to redirect our energy, promoting our health.
However, if you can’t get around the idea of de qi, and prefer a more scientific approach to understanding acupuncture, then the International Review of Neurobiology may help provide some insight. According to the review, acupuncture is said to work by activating the sensory system—the neurotransmitters, neurohormones, and neuromodulators. This can have an impact on how we feel and perceive pain.
What Acupuncture May Help With
1. Chronic Pain
In an article in JAMA Internal Medicine, which looked at the results of 18,000 patients who used acupuncture versus no or sham acupuncture (which is used in control studies, applied in fake points), found the approach effective in dealing with chronic pain, although the review was clear that its functions aren’t wholly understood.
Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that acupuncture can be beneficial for pain treatment, especially in the short term. Dr. Chee says that acupuncture is an especially good option for pain management for people who, based on their health or condition, are not good candidates for surgery.
Do seasonal allergies get you sniffly, sneezy, and downright miserable? Acupuncture may help, according to a 2015 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy. And that’s because acupuncture may be able to modulate the immune system.
Although the frequency of visiting the acupuncturist turns off a lot of people from pursuing acupuncture for allergy relief, Dr. Chee says many people do find profound relief once they try the needles: “It’s when nothing works that allergy sufferers come to acupuncture.” Or, you may want to try acupuncture for allergies in tandem with other methods, as this Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine review suggests.
Whether you suffer from migraines or the occasional tension headache, acupuncture has been shown to have some efficacy in toning down the discomfort. A 2016 Cochrane review found that acupuncture can help with tension headaches (especially chronic ones). And a study in the journal Headache, found that acupuncture may be at least as effective as conventional drug treatments in preventing migraines.
4. Stress and anxiety
It may be chalked up to a bit of the placebo effect (the actual act of getting acupuncture is pretty relaxing, after all, what with all the lying down in a quiet room), but acupuncture can also help lessen your stress and anxiety levels—and this goes for all kinds of people, from your average 9-5 worker to veterans with PTSD. In fact, auricular acupuncture (acupuncture on the ear) was shown to have a great effect on lessening stress and anxiety and increasing feelings of courage and care, according to a study in Dimensions of Critical Care Nursing.
Another randomized controlled trial, published in Acupuncture in Medicine, found that acupuncture showed promising results on lessening chronic anxiety in people who showed resistance to other forms of therapy.
what Acupuncture May Not Help With…
Although acupuncture is increasingly used for epileptics, a 2014 Cochrane review found little to no evidence that acupuncture could actually help alleviate the symptoms that people with epilepsy experience.
2. Weight Loss
While studies, like one in Evidence-Based Complimentary Medicine, do show that acupuncture may stimulate feelings of satiety (thus eating less), it did not have a direct impact on weight loss.
3. Alcohol and Drug Dependence
Acupuncture is often used as a complement to traditional drug or alcohol treatment. Unfortunately, the evidence that it helps promote recovery from addiction is not of great quality. A 2014 meta-analysis in the Journal of Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine showed some studies found some positive findings (where it concerned feelings of anxiety), but couldn’t conclude that acupuncture helped physically stop cravings for drugs, especially in cases of opioid dependence.
Evidence aside, if you’re interested in trying acupuncture, Dr. Chee emphasizes that there’s another factor that can profoundly affect whether or not this treatment modality will work for you: the experience and expertise of the acupuncture practitioner you choose. He suggests looking for a practitioner with a state license at the minimum—and a DAOM (doctorate of acupuncture and Oriental medicine) degree if at possible.
Don’t be afraid to ask potential practitioners questions about their experience with your condition, either, says Dr. Chee. Some questions he recommends asking your potential acupuncturist include:
- If they have they treated your specific condition before and what types of results have they gotten.
- How helpful do they feel acupuncture will be in treating your condition?
- How many times do they think you will need to be treated?