The Benefits and Side Effects of Acupuncture

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Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that is based on the idea that a blockage or disturbance in the flow of the body's life energy, or qi, can cause health issues. Acupuncturists insert thin needles into specific points throughout the body to balance the body’s energy, stimulate healing, and promote relaxation.

Acupuncturist inserting a needle into a client's back.

Science Photo Library - ADAM GAULT / Getty Images

This article explains how acupuncture works, its benefits, and the potential side effects. It will also cover what conditions acupuncture may be used for.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Researchers don't fully understand how acupuncture might work, but some theories include:

  • Acupuncture may stimulate the release of endorphins, the body's natural pain-relieving chemicals.
  • Acupuncture may influence the autonomic nervous system, and needle placement may impact breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate.

What Is Acupuncture Done For?

Acupuncture may be useful for a variety of conditions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis, which describes conditions that involve joint inflammation
  • Long-term pain
  • Depression
  • Insomnia, a condition that involves sleep-related difficulties
  • Migraines, which are intense headaches that often include other symptoms
  • Nausea
  • Sinus congestion, or nasal stuffiness
  • Stress
  • Infertility, which describes difficulty getting pregnant
  • Addiction
  • Skin appearance

What Are the Health Benefits of Acupuncture?

The health benefits of acupuncture can vary depending on the individual. Keep in mind that it may take several acupuncture sessions before you notice any benefits.

Research on the health benefits of acupuncture is still limited, however, there are some studies that found acupuncture to be helpful for specific conditions.

Low Back Pain

A study on non-drug treatment options for lower back pain showed that acupuncture led to less intense pain and better back functioning right after a treatment. In the long term, however, it was not clear how helpful acupuncture treatment was.

Migraines

Research on migraines done over a six month period showed that:

  • Acupuncture was able to reduce the frequency of migraine symptoms by half in 41% of those in the study compared to those not getting any acupuncture.
  • Acupuncture was noted as being about as helpful as preventative migraine medications.

Tension Headaches

According to research, having at least six acupuncture sessions may be helpful for those with frequent head pain or pressure, also known as tension headaches. This study also noted that acupuncture added along with pain medication led to less headache frequency when compared to those only given medication.

Knee Pain

Research that looked at multiple studies suggested that acupuncture may be able to improve the physical function of the knee in the short and long term in individuals who have knee osteoarthritis. With this condition, the connective tissue in the knee breaks down. This study also found that acupuncture was able to help those with knee osteoarthritis decrease their knee pain, but this was only helpful in the short term.

Another review that looked at multiple studies found that acupuncture delayed and reduced the use of pain medication in those who had knee replacement surgery.

Recap

Some research suggests that acupuncture may help with knee functioning and knee pain in those who have osteoarthritis. It is also associated with using less pain medication after having knee replacement surgery.

Facial Elasticity

Cosmetic acupuncture, also known as facial acupuncture, is used to improve the appearance of the skin on the head, face, and neck. In a small study where individuals had five acupuncture sessions in three weeks, a little over half of the participants showed an improvement in skin elasticity, which helps skin look plump.

How Is Acupuncture Done?

Prior to getting acupuncture, your acupuncturist will ask about your health history and may give you a physical examination.

During the acupuncture session, thin needles are placed in specific areas to address your concern or condition. The acupuncturist may gently twist the needles for added effect. The needles are often left in for 15 to 20 minutes, with the total session lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

Your acupuncturist may use additional techniques during your session including:

  • Moxibustion: This involves the use of heated sticks, made from dried herbs, held near the acupuncture needles to warm and stimulate the acupuncture points.
  • Electroacupuncture: An electrical device is connected to several needles, providing a weak electrical current that stimulates the acupuncture needles during the treatment.
  • Cupping: Glass or silicone cups are applied to the skin so that there is a suction effect, which aims to help stimulate blood flow and balance your energy.

After the treatment, some people may feel relaxed, while others may feel energetic. If you experience any unusual symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider.

Recap

During an acupuncture session, your acupuncturist will place needles in specific areas and may leave them in for about 20 minutes. Other techniques like twisting, or adding heat may also be done.

Is Acupuncture Painful?

You may feel a slight sting, pinch, ache, or some pain as the acupuncture needle is being inserted. Some acupuncturists move the needle after it has been placed in the body, which can cause additional pressure.

Once the needle has been properly placed, you may feel a tingling or heavy feeling, which is referred to as de qi.

Let your acupuncturist know if you are uncomfortable or in a lot of pain at any point during the session. Intense pain may mean the needle has not been inserted or placed correctly.

Does Acupuncture Have Side Effects?

As with any treatment, acupuncture may cause side effects in some individuals. Side effects may include:

Less common are serious side effects such as blood vessel and nerve injury, complications from the needle breaking during treatment, organ injuries, as well as brain and spinal cord injuries. While rare, acupuncture complications can lead to death.

In order to reduce the risk of side effects, acupuncture should always be done by a licensed and properly trained healthcare provider using clean, disposable needles.

It's a good idea to speak with your primary care physician before getting acupuncture, as this treatment may not be right for people with certain health conditions.

Summary

Researchers aren't exactly sure how acupuncture works, however, theories suggest that it may help release endorphins, as well as influence the autonomic nervous system.

Acupuncture may be helpful for a variety of concerns, including some mental health disorders, pain, inflammatory conditions, stress, and skin appearance. However, keep in mind that acupuncture can lead to mild or serious side effects in some individuals.

An acupuncture session can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and usually involves about 20 minutes with the needles in. Some individuals may feel some pain or pressure while the needles are inserted, while others may feel different sensations while the needles are in.

A Word From Verywell

If you are having difficulty managing pain or other health issues, you may consider trying acupuncture. Check with your healthcare provider first to discuss whether it's the best option for you.

17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.