What is Acupuncture?
Dating back to at least 100 B.C., acupuncture was first described in writing as an organized system of diagnosis and treatment using needles. Commonly utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture is linked to the belief that disease is caused by disruptions to the flow of energy, or Qi, in the body. Acupuncture stimulates points on or under the skin called acupuncture points or acupressure points, releasing this Qi. The Qi then travels through channels called meridians.
How does Acupuncture work?
Current research shows that acupuncture likely excites the biochemical responses in the human body via the nerves. It is thought that acupuncture itself doesn’t directly release feel-good chemicals that can aid in decreasing inflammation, stress, and so forth, but it works higher up the chain such as affecting the pituitary gland to produce the extra hormones.
According to Dr. Ting Bao, an integrative medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, “One major hypothesis is that acupuncture works through neurohormonal pathways. Basically, you put the needle through specific points in the body and stimulate the nerve. The nerve actually sends signals to the brain, and the brain releases neural hormones such as beta-Endorphins. By doing that, the patient may feel euphoric, or happy, and this increases the pain threshold and they feel less pain.”
Another hypothesis is that acupuncture works by reducing pro-inflammatory markers, or proteins, in the body. Some animal and human studies suggest that by doing acupuncture, you can significantly decrease these pro-inflammatory markers — including TNF and IL-1β — which decreases inflammation and reduces pain. One such spot is just below the knee (a point known as Stomach 36). This point is used in a wide variety of treatments that involve inflammation anywhere in the body, as well as for increasing energy and boosting the immune system, which in turn also help to decrease inflammation.
Where can I find more information?
The information below comes directly from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website.
Read more about acupuncture for these pain conditions and others:
For Low-Back Pain
- A 2012 analysis of data on participants in acupuncture studies looked at back and neck pain together and found that actual acupuncture was more helpful than either no acupuncture or simulated acupuncture.
- A 2010 review by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that acupuncture relieved low-back pain immediately after treatment but not over longer periods of time.
- A 2008 systematic review of studies on acupuncture for low-back pain found strong evidence that combining acupuncture with usual care helps more than usual care alone. The same review also found strong evidence that there is no difference between the effects of actual and simulated acupuncture in people with low-back pain.
- Clinical practice guidelines issued by the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians in 2007 recommend acupuncture as one of several nondrug approaches physicians should consider when patients with chronic low-back pain do not respond to self-care (practices that people can do by themselves, such as remaining active, applying heat, and taking pain-relieving medications).
For Neck Pain
- A 2009 analysis found that actual acupuncture was more helpful for neck pain than simulated acupuncture, but the analysis was based on a small amount of evidence (only three studies with small study populations).
- A large German study with more than 14,000 participants evaluated adding acupuncture to usual care for neck pain. The researchers found that participants reported greater pain relief than those who didn’t receive it; the researchers didn’t test actual acupuncture against simulated acupuncture.
For Osteoarthritis/Knee Pain
- A 2014 Australian clinical study involving 282 men and women showed that needle and laser acupuncture were modestly better at relieving knee pain from osteoarthritis than no treatment, but not better than simulated (sham) laser acupuncture. Participants received 8 to 12 actual and simulated acupuncture treatments over 12 weeks. These results are generally consistent with previous studies, which showed that acupuncture is consistently better than no treatment but not necessarily better than simulated acupuncture at relieving osteoarthritis pain.
- A major 2012 analysis of data on participants in acupuncture studies found that actual acupuncture was more helpful for osteoarthritis pain than simulated acupuncture or no acupuncture.
- A 2010 systematic review of studies of acupuncture for knee or hip osteoarthritis concluded that actual acupuncture was more helpful for osteoarthritis pain than either simulated acupuncture or no acupuncture. However, the difference between actual and simulated acupuncture was very small, while the difference between acupuncture and no acupuncture was large.
- A 2012 analysis of data on individual participants in acupuncture studies looked at migraine and tension headaches. The analysis showed that actual acupuncture was more effective than either no acupuncture or simulated acupuncture in reducing headache frequency or severity.
- A 2009 systematic review of studies concluded that actual acupuncture, compared with simulated acupuncture or pain-relieving drugs, helped people with tension-type headaches. A 2008 systematic review of studies suggested that actual acupuncture has a very slight advantage over simulated acupuncture in reducing tension-type headache intensity and the number of headache days per month.
- A 2009 systematic review found that adding acupuncture to basic care for migraines helped to reduce migraine frequency. However, in studies that compared actual acupuncture with simulated acupuncture, researchers found that the differences between the two treatments may have been due to chance.
For Other Conditions
- Results of a systematic review that combined data from 11 clinical trials with more than 1,200 participants suggested that acupuncture (and acupuncture point stimulation) may help with certain symptoms associated with cancer treatments.
- There is not enough evidence to determine if acupuncture can help people with depression.
- Acupuncture has been promoted as a smoking cessation treatment since the 1970s, but research has not shown that it helps people quit the habit.
Read more about the challenges of studying acupuncture:
Studying acupuncture is challenging because:
- Clinical trials often differ in terms of technique, the number of acupuncture points, the number of sessions, and the duration of those sessions.
- Results of an acupuncture session may be associated with a person’s beliefs and expectations about their treatment or from their relationship with the therapist, rather than from acupuncture treatment itself.
- In some clinical trials, researchers test a product or practice against an inactive product or technique (called a placebo) to see if the response is due to the test protocol or to something else. Many acupuncture trials rely on a technique called simulated acupuncture, which may use blunt-tipped retractable needles that touch the skin but do not penetrate (in real acupuncture, needles penetrate the skin). Researchers also may simulate acupuncture in other ways. However, in some instances, researchers have observed that simulated acupuncture resulted in some degree of pain relief.