By Mayo Clinic staff
Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely thin needles in your skin at strategic points on your body. Acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago, but over the past three decades its popularity has grown significantly within the United States.
Traditional Chinese theory explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as qi or chi (chee) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance.
In contrast, many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. This stimulation appears to boost the activity of your body's natural painkillers and increase blood flow.
You may try acupuncture for symptomatic relief of a variety of diseases and conditions, including:
Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
Low back pain
Postoperative dental pain
Scientists don't fully understand how or why acupuncture affects the amount of pain you feel. Several studies have found that acupuncture has little or no effect beyond that of the sham treatment used in some study participants — the control group — for comparison. The lack of firm results can be explained, in part, by the difficulty of devising a realistic but inactive stand-in for acupuncture.
The risks of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner. Possible side effects and complications include:
Soreness, bleeding or bruising at the needle sites
Internal organ injury, particularly to the lungs, if the needles are pushed in too deeply
Infectious disease, such as hepatitis, contracted from reused needles
Not everyone is a good candidate for acupuncture or for particular types of acupuncture. Conditions that may increase your risks of complications include:
Bleeding disorders. Your chances of bleeding or bruising from the needles increases if you have a bleeding disorder or if you're taking blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin).
Having a pacemaker. Some types of acupuncture involve applying mild electrical pulses to the needles, which can interfere with a pacemaker's operation.
Being pregnant. Some types of acupuncture have been known to stimulate labor, which could result in a premature delivery.
If you're considering acupuncture, do the same things you would do if you were choosing a doctor:
Ask people you trust for recommendations.
Check the practitioner's training and credentials. Most states require that nonphysician acupuncturists pass an exam conducted by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).
Interview the practitioner. Ask what's involved in the treatment, how likely it is to help your condition and how much it will cost.
Find out whether the expense is covered by your insurance.
Don't be afraid to tell your doctor you're considering acupuncture. He or she may be able to tell you about the success rate of using acupuncture for your condition or recommend an acupuncture practitioner for you to try.
Before you start treatment, make sure that your acupuncture practitioner uses single-use, sterile packaged needles
Each person who performs acupuncture has a unique style, often blending aspects of Eastern and Western approaches to medicine.
To determine the type of acupuncture treatment that will help you the most, your practitioner may ask you many questions about your symptoms, behaviors and lifestyle. He or she may also closely examine:
The parts of your body that are painful
The shape, coating and color of your tongue
The color of your face
The strength, rhythm and quality of the pulse in your wrist
This initial evaluation may take up to 60 minutes. Subsequent appointments usually take about a half-hour. A common treatment plan for a single complaint would typically involve six to 12 treatments, scheduled over a few months. Several maintenance sessions a year also may be recommended.
Acupuncture points are located in all areas of the body. Sometimes the appropriate points are far removed from the area of your pain. Your acupuncture practitioner will tell you the general location of the planned treatment and if articles of clothing need to be removed. If appropriate, a gown, towel or sheet will be provided to preserve your modesty. After you lie down on a padded table, the treatment begins.
Needle insertion. Acupuncture needles are very thin, so insertion usually causes very little discomfort. Between five and 20 needles are used in a typical treatment. You may feel a deep, aching sensation when a needle reaches the correct depth.
Needle manipulation. Your practitioner may gently move or twirl the needles after they've been placed. Another option is to apply heat or a mild electric pulses to the needles.
Needle removal. In most cases, the needles will remain in place for 15 to 30 minutes while you lie still and relax. There is usually no sensation of discomfort when the needles are removed. Your acupuncture practitioner should discard the needles after removal — reusable needles can spread infection.
Some people feel relaxed while others feel energized after an acupuncture treatment. But not everyone responds to acupuncture. If your symptoms don't begin to improve within a few weeks, acupuncture may not be the right treatment for you.
The effects of acupuncture are sometimes difficult to measure, but many people swear by it as a means to control a variety of painful conditions.
Several studies, however, show that simulated acupuncture appears to work just as well as real acupuncture. There also is evidence that acupuncture works best in people who expect it to work.
Since acupuncture has few side effects, it may be worth a try if you're having trouble controlling pain with more-conventional methods.