Acupuncture for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

What Research Shows

Person getting acupuncture treatment

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Chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is notoriously hard to treat. A growing body of research now suggests, though, that acupuncture may be able to help alleviate some of its many symptoms.

A fair amount of research has been done since the early 2000s. Acupuncture isn't a cure and it's not likely to bring complete symptom relief, but, when combined with other treatments, it may be part of a regimen that helps you regain functionality and quality of life.

Many of these studies looked at specific acupuncture points and techniques in relation to certain symptoms or abnormalities linked to the condition. Because those don't mean anything to most of us, they won't be discussed in detail here. However, if you'd like to share them with a practitioner, you'll find links to all of these studies in the Sources section at the end of this article.

The Research: Relieving Symptoms

Several studies show that acupuncture may improve both physical and mental fatigue as well as:

  • Health-related quality of life
  • General mental health
  • Physiological function

Some have also shown improvements in:

  • Social function
  • Pain sensation

Various studies listed improvements in:

  • Energy
  • Anorexia
  • Insomnia
  • Amnesia
  • Diarrhea
  • General pain

The number and duration of treatments vary by study. A 2009 case study in the same journal shows improvements in being active without fatigue and the overall mental state of the patient after 10 treatments lasting 30 minutes each. After another 10 treatments, fatigue and heaviness in the limbs had declined. The patient had a total of 50 treatments and the effects appeared to be lasting at a three-month follow-up.

A 2014 review of medical literature states that there's a high risk of bias in studies of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for ME/CFS; however, researchers said TCM (which included studies involving acupuncture)--alone or in combination with other treatments--appears to be effective at lessening fatigue. They call for larger, well-designed studies to confirm the potential benefit.

This appears to be a significant improvement over a 2011 review stating there was limited evidence for the effectiveness of complementary/alternative treatments (including acupuncture) for relieving ME/CFS symptoms. Meanwhile, a 2010 review of alternative treatments said acupuncture, along with some types of meditation, show the most promise for future investigation.

A 2012 study compared the steroid prednisone with an acupuncture technique called coiling dragon as well as an additional TCM treatment called cupping. It suggested that the TCM treatments were superior to the drug when it came to measures of fatigue.

In at least one study, a technique called warm-needling or moxibustion showed even better results than standard acupuncture when it came to physical and mental fatigue scores.

Other Research

For some people, the cognitive dysfunction ("brain fog") of ME/CFS can be nearly as disabling as the fatigue. In a 2013 Acupuncture Research paper on rats, researchers found that acupuncture improved the animals' memory when it came to learning. The researchers hypothesize that this effect may be due to changes in free radicals in the brain.

Free radicals are oxygen-damaged cells that are associated with disease risk. Antioxidants in foods are believed to reduce this damage. A 2012 study on free radicals in rats with ME/CFS suggested that acupuncture may also be able to ameliorate free-radical damage.

An abnormality seen in many people with ME/CFS is abnormal levels of T cells, which are specialized cells in the immune system that respond to infectious agents. A 2013 study looked at acupuncture's impact on T cells in people with this condition. Researchers found that acupuncture was indeed associated with altered ratios of different types of T cells and that the T cell alterations correlated with improvements in mental fatigue.

Cheng, et al, in 2010, hypothesized that people with ME/CFS have problems with circadian rhythms. Their study suggested that acupuncture may help regulate circadian rhythms and therefore relieve daytime sleepiness.

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Article Sources

  1. Hui JS. Acupuncture treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome. Journal of traditional Chinese medicine. 2009 Sep;29(3):234-6.

  2. Wang YY, et al. Traditional Chinese medicine for chronic fatigue syndrome: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Complementary therapies in medicine. 2014 Aug;22(4):826-33.

  3. Alraek T, et al. Complementary and alternative medicine for patients with chronic fatigue syndrome: a systematic review. BMC complementary and alternative medicine. 2011 Oct 7;11:87.

  4. Porter NS, Jason LA, Boulton A, Bothne N, Coleman B. Alternative medical interventions used in the treatment and management of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine. 2010 Mar;16(3):235-49. doi:10.1089/acm.2008.0376

  5. Xu W, Zhou RH, Li L, Jiang MW. Observation on therapeutic effect of chronic fatigue syndrome treated with coiling Dragon kneeling and moving cupping on back. Zhongguo Zhen Jiu (Chinese acupuncture & moxibustion.) 2012 Mar;32(3):205-8. Article in Chinese; abstract accessed.

  6. Lu C, Yang XJ, Hu J. Randomized controlled clinical trials of acupuncture and moxibustion treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome patients. Zhen Ci Yan Jiu. 2014 Aug;39(4):313-7. Article in Chinese; abstract accessed.

  7. Liu CZ, Lei B. Zhen Ci Yan Jiu. Effective acupuncture intervention on learning-memory ability in cerebral superoxide dismutase activity and malonaldehyde concentration in chronic fatigue syndrome rats. Acupuncture Research. 2013 Dec;38(6):478-81. Article in Chinese; abstract accessed.

  8. Liu CZ, Lei B. Effective acupuncture on serum malonaldehyde content, superoxide dismutase andglutathione peroxidase activity in chronic fatigue syndrome rats. Zhen Ci Yan Jiu (Acupuncture Research). 2012 Feb;37(1):38-40, 58. Article in Chinese; abstract accessed.

  9. Ling JY, et al. Impacts on fatigue syndrome of qi deficiency syndrome and T cell subgroups in patients treated with acupuncture at selective time. Zhongguo Zhen Jiu (Chinese acupuncture & moxibustion.) 2013 Dec;33(12):1061-4. Article in Chinese; abstract accessed.

  10. Cheng CS, Zhu YH, Liang FR, et al. Effect of electro acupuncture at Shenshu (BL 23) and Zusanli (ST 36) on the event -related potentials of chronic fatigue syndrome. Zhongguo Zhen Jiu (Chinese acupuncture & moxibustion.) 2010 Apr;30(4):309-12. Article in Chinese; abstract accessed.

Additional Reading

  • Chen XH, et al. Randomized controlled study on acupuncture treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome. Zhongguo Zhen Jiu (Chinese acupuncture & moxibustion.) 2010 Jul;30(7):533-6. Article in Chinese; abstract accessed.

  • Kim JE, Hong KE, Kim HJ, et al. An open-label study of effects of acupuncture on chronic fatigue syndrome and idiopathic chronic fatigue: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials. 2013 May 21;14:147. doi:10.1186/1745-6215-14-147

  • Ng SM, Yiu YM. Acupuncture for chronic fatigue syndrome: a randomized, sham -controlled trial with single-blinded design. Alternative theories in health and medicine. 2013 Jul-Aug;19(4):21-6.

  • Zhang W, Liu ZS, Xu HR, Liu YS. Observation on therapeutic effect of acupuncture Back-shu acupoints for chronic fatigue syndrome patients. Zhen Ci Yan Jiu (acupuncture research). 2011 Dec;36(6):437-41, 448. Article in Chinese; abstract accessed.