Acupuncture for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

What Research Shows

A woman relaxes with acupuncture needles in her back.
Acupuncture is getting a lot of attention for chronic fatigue syndrome. Michelangelo Gratton/Getty Images

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

A fair amount of research has been done on this 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 Fatigue & Other Major Symptoms

Numerous 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

A Chinese study published in 20085 listed improvements in:

  • Lack of energy
  • Anorexia
  • Insomnia
  • Amnesia
  • Diarrhea
  • General pain

The number and duration of treatments vary by study. One case study6 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 literature18 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 review1, which stated there was limited evidence for the effectiveness of complementary/alternative treatments (including acupuncture) for relieving ME/CFS symptoms. Meanwhile, a 2010 review of alternative treatments13 said acupuncture, along with some types of meditation, show the most promise for future investigation.

A 2012 study19 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 study11, a technique called warm-needling or moxibustion showed even better results than standard acupuncture when it came to physical and mental fatigue scores.

An early study20 suggests that pressing on acupoints, along with massage, may improve ME/CFS symptoms without even the need for needles. However, this research does not appear to have been followed up on.

Other Research

For some people, the cognitive dysfunction ("brain fog") of ME/CFS can be nearly as disabling as the fatigue. In a 2013 study on rats10, 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 is believed to reduce this damage. A 2012 study9 on free radicals on 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 study8 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.

One group of researchers hypothesized that people with ME/CFS have problems with circadian rhythms. Their study3 suggested that acupuncture may help regulate circadian rhythms and therefore relieve daytime sleepiness.

More About Acupuncture

To learn the theory of how acupuncture works and what to expect an acupuncture appointment, see:

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