Acupuncture is a type of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM ) that may have pain and stress relief properties. Although the scientific understanding of acupuncture is limited, it’s commonly used as an intervention for many health conditions, including migraines and osteoarthritis. Acupuncture has few reported side effects and is considered overall safe when performed by a licensed acupuncturist or Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner. Keep reading below to learn more about 10 health benefits of acupuncture and the conditions it may be beneficial toward.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is one of the oldest medical practices of TCM, but how it works is still not fully understood. TCM acupuncture involves inserting sterile, tiny needles into specific locations of the body, known as acupuncture points, to stimulate the flow of qi. According to TCM, qi is theoretical energy that flows through the body and regulates bodily functions and overall health. When an illness or ailment is present, the flow of qi is considered obstructed, causing pain and other health concerns. Needling-specific acupuncture points aim to restore energy flow and provide symptom relief. (1)
Although there is little evidence of qi and its impact on health, scientific research does indicate that acupuncture may stimulate nerves in muscles and trigger the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins (chemicals that can help relieve pain and stress). (1) Acupuncture may also impact the body’s immune system, potentially exerting anti-inflammatory effects. (17)
10 health benefits of acupuncture
Whether it’s to manage a specific health condition or support general wellness, acupuncture may be beneficial. (34) The reasoning behind acupuncture’s effectiveness is not well understood, but many patients report that they experience a reduction of symptoms after receiving acupuncture treatment. Outlined below are ten health conditions in which acupuncture may be beneficial.
1. Blood pressure control
Acupuncture may impact the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) by supporting blood pressure control. Hypertension (high blood pressure) negatively impacts blood flow and affects almost half (47%) of adults in the United States. Having hypertension can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. (5) Changes to lifestyle and diet are significant parts of hypertension management, and receiving acupuncture treatments may be a lifestyle change to consider. (28)
Animal research indicates that certain acupuncture points may effectively reduce blood pressure. (31) When studied in humans, acupuncture supported blood pressure reduction in individuals with prehypertension and mild (stage one) hypertension. (18) Acupuncture is most effective for hypertension when combined with blood pressure medication. Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture alone. (15)(28)
2. Chronic headaches
Whether it’s migraines or tension headaches, chronic headaches can be challenging to treat and can seriously impact quality of life. (27) Adding acupuncture to your headache treatment regimen may help reduce the intensity, frequency, and duration of chronic headaches and migraines. Acupuncture may also help enhance the quality of life compared to medication alone.
It’s important to note that the number of acupuncture treatments and which acupuncture points to target for headache relief vary significantly among studies, indicating that further research is needed to understand how to use acupuncture to address headaches effectively. (26)(27)
3. Chronic insomnia
Insomnia can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Medical treatment for insomnia often involves sedative medications, which can have negative side effects when they are used long-term (e.g., excessive sleepiness). Acupuncture may be an option for individuals aiming to prevent or limit their use of sleep medications. Research suggests that acupuncture may promote deep relaxation, similar to medications, with less frequent and severe side effects. (12)(33)
4. Chronic pain
Acupuncture is most commonly used in North America to help with pain relief. The American College of Physicians recommends acupuncture for low back pain, but patients suffering from other types of pain, such as neck and shoulder pain, may benefit from acupuncture too. (21)(29) Compared to no acupuncture, individuals with neck pain who received acupuncture experienced more pain relief. (32) Other patients have reported that the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture last six months to a year after their last session. (23)
Colic affects babies around two to 16 weeks of age. Colic often presents as any unexplained, yet predictable, crying and fussiness, typically in the afternoon or evening. Anyone who has ever had a child with colic knows just how miserable it is—for both baby and the parents. While there’s no clear explanation for why colic affects some kids and not others, it’s believed to have something to do with health conditions related to the digestive system, such as food allergy or sensitivity and excessive flatulence (gas). (24)(30)
Interestingly, several studies have found that acupuncture may significantly reduce the fussing and crying associated with colic—without any serious side effects. (13)(14)(24) Acupuncture may also support digestive health in colicky infants, as some parents reported that babies experienced less bloating and less frequent diarrhea-like stools after receiving acupuncture. (24)
Menopause is a normal part of aging, but it can come with undesirable side effects, such as hot flashes, depression, and poor sleep. Acupuncture may help enhance overall well-being throughout menopause by reducing menopausal hot flashes and improving sleep quality. (6) These benefits have been reported to continue for up to six months after the last acupuncture treatment. (3)
7. Menstrual pain
Dysmenorrhea, or painful periods, is associated with common ailments, such as lower abdominal cramps, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea or vomiting. Commonly, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, like ibuprofen) are used to manage menstrual pain. Still, about 20 to 25% of women report that NSAIDs alone don’t fully relieve their period-related pain. Acupuncture may be an effective treatment for period-related pain, but more research is required to understand its impact. Compared to no treatment, acupuncture appears to be a successful pain intervention for menstrual cramps. However, compared to sham acupuncture (inserting needles into non-acupuncture points), the impact of traditional acupuncture is inconclusive—indicating that the benefits of acupuncture treatment for period pain may result from a placebo effect. (9)
8. Mental health
Mental and emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression affect millions of North Americans yearly. (22) These conditions can be complex and can have a significant impact on daily life. Although study results are mixed, acupuncture may help promote optimal wellness in individuals with mental health conditions. Acupuncture may reduce the severity of depression and anxiety by impacting the nervous system and increasing certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin (a mood-boosting compound). The acupuncture points and treatment frequency vary greatly among studies, making it difficult to assess the impact of acupuncture on mental health conditions. (7)(25)
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, often affecting the hands, knees, hips, and spine. (19) NSAIDs are often used to manage osteoarthritic symptoms, such as knee pain, but may also lead to undesirable side effects (e.g., stomach ulcers) with long-term use. (16) Acupuncture has been acknowledged by the American College of Rheumatology and Arthritis Foundation as a potential intervention to help relieve chronic pain associated with osteoarthritis. (10)
Referred to as a conditional recommendation, these institutions suggest acupuncture is likely to impact osteoarthritic pain positively. Still, they aren’t entirely confident in its effects as more substantial scientific evidence is required. (2)(10) For many studies, the effects of acupuncture are unclear. While others demonstrate that acupuncture may significantly reduce osteoarthritic pain and improve joint mobility and health-related quality of life, particularly when adhering to ongoing acupuncture treatments. (20)
10. Post-traumatic stress disorder
Exposure to extreme psychological trauma or terrifying events (e.g., natural disasters, violent crimes) can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a complex condition that can impact everyday life and lead to anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping or performing daily tasks. Various approaches are used to help alleviate PTSD symptoms, including medication and cognitive behavioral (talk) therapy, but these solutions may not work for everyone and may be costly. (11)
Acupuncture treatment has been investigated as a potential option for reducing the impact of PTSD symptoms. PTSD animal studies indicate that acupuncture may improve sleep duration and reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. (11) Human studies investigating acupuncture as a treatment for PTSD symptoms are limited. However, one human study found that acupuncture improved self-reported PTSD symptoms to a similar extent to patients who received cognitive behavioral therapy. (8)
The bottom line
Acupuncture is generally a painless experience with few side effects. The reasoning behind the health benefits of acupuncture isn’t well understood but is likely related to its impact on the immune and nervous systems. Symptoms of many health conditions, including insomnia and PTSD, may be reduced with regular acupuncture sessions. However, more research is needed to confirm these benefits. To learn more about acupuncture, contact your integrative healthcare provider.
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