Acupuncture has gained so much popularity in recent years that if you haven’t already tried it, it’s likely you have friends or family who have. If you’ve heard about acupuncture’s benefits, you might wonder if it would work for you.

In this article, we’ll dig into the science behind acupuncture’s benefits and answer your most pressing questions—like “Does acupuncture hurt?” and “Does acupuncture work for my condition?”

Acupuncture equipment laid out

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Acupuncture works by stimulating Qi and helping it to move more freely so that the body functions at its best.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine that aims to stimulate the flow of Qi (or energy) throughout the body. Acupuncture practitioners stimulate Qi (pronounced “chee”) by inserting very thin, stainless steel needles into one or several of more than 500 specific acupuncture points on the body.

The idea is that by stimulating Qi and helping it to move more freely, acupuncture can help the body function at its best.

What conditions can acupuncture treat?

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture can be used as a component of treatment for most health and wellness concerns.

That’s because, in TCM, the disease is seen as a result of Qi imbalances. So stimulating Qi to flow optimally is a way to address the root cause of disease.

In the Western medical world, acupuncture has been studied as a treatment for a wide variety of conditions. Some have more evidence behind them than others, including the ones below.

Acupuncture for chronic pain

Most promising research on acupuncture focuses on its ability to treat pain.

In fact, acupuncture is so effective for treating low-back pain that the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians both recommend it as a non-medical treatment for chronic low-back pain. (1)

In a 2012 analysis of past acupuncture studies, researchers found that acupuncture is more effective than placebo for treating four chronic pain conditions:

  • back and neck pain
  • osteoarthritis
  • chronic headache
  • shoulder pain (2)

An earlier study found that adding acupuncture to usual care for low-back pain amplified the relief. The authors of the study recommended that acupuncture be added to the European Guidelines for the treatment of lower-back pain. (3)

Neck pain can benefit from acupuncture too. A large German study—including more than 14,000 participants—found that people receiving acupuncture had much more pain relief than those who did not. (4)

person holding their knee in pain

Acupuncture significantly reduces pain and improves health-related quality of life associated with osteoarthritis.

Acupuncture for osteoarthritis

For osteoarthritis—the most common form of arthritis, and the top reason for disability in adults in the United States (5)—acupuncture is especially effective. A review of 10 trials involving nearly 1,700 people found that acupuncture significantly reduces pain and improves health-related quality of life associated with osteoarthritis.

Note that longer treatment periods had better outcomes—meaning that if you are looking for relief from your osteoarthritis, you might need to be treated for several weeks to see the greatest benefits. (6)

Acupuncture for type 2 diabetes

Nearly half a billion people worldwide were living with diabetes in 2014—almost quadruple the number who had the disease in 1980. (7) And those numbers are only expected to rise in the coming years. So finding ways to address diabetes is incredibly important.

Research over the past two decades suggests that acupuncture may just be an effective part of the diabetes treatment protocol.

One study, conducted in 2017, found that acupuncture reduced blood glucose in diabetic men—not to nondiabetic levels, but significantly. (8)

Another study suggests that acupuncture might help prevent diabetes before it develops. In this study, 99 obese women at risk of developing diabetes were treated with three methods of stimulating Qi: standard acupuncture, electroacupuncture, and moxibustion.

After these treatments, the women lost weight, reduced their body mass index, lowered their insulin levels, and improved their insulin resistance. (9)

While acupuncture and related therapies aren’t a proven cure for diabetes, they may be an important part of an overall treatment and prevention plan.

Acupuncture for headache

Whether it’s a migraine or tension-related, a headache can have a serious impact on the quality of life.

Luckily, many people find headache relief from acupuncture.

In addition to the 2012 review noted above, other research has also backed acupuncture for headache relief.

A 2009 systematic review, for instance, found that—even compared with pain-relief medications—acupuncture helps relieve tension-type headaches. (10)

In the same year, the same researchers found that acupuncture may be even more effective than drugs at treating and preventing migraine headaches—great news for anyone who has ever been debilitated by a migraine! (11)

Acupuncture for colic

Anyone who has ever had a child with colic knows just how miserable it is—for both baby and parents. While there’s no clear explanation for why colic affects some kids and not others, it’s thought to have something to do with gastrointestinal problems. (14) It can cause near constant crying and discomfort for the baby, and endless worry and anguish for the parents.

There’s some good news for colicky babies and the grown-ups who love them, though: several studies have found that acupuncture can significantly reduce the fussing and crying associated with colic—without any serious side effects. (12)(13)(14)

Acupuncture for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Hundreds of thousands of military veterans have returned from combat with a diagnosis of PTSD—and countless civilians suffer from the condition as well. PTSD is a living nightmare for its sufferers—causing them to relive their traumas through thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks. They can also be so overstimulated that they have trouble sleeping, experience anger outbursts, and avoid situations that they used to enjoy.

Treating PTSD is complicated, but research suggests that acupuncture might be able to play a role in bringing relief.

In one review of the literature, an acupuncturist who works with PTSD programs for the military concluded that acupuncture “may be an efficacious treatment option for PTSD.” (15)

person getting acupuncture done on them by a practitioner

Acupuncture is more effective than placebo for treating four chronic pain conditions including back and neck pain.

Does acupuncture hurt?

One of the main objections to acupuncture is that people are afraid it will hurt. The truth is that the needles are so tiny that they don’t feel like needles used for blood tests or injections.

Some people claim they can barely feel the acupuncture needles at all. However, the needles can cause some discomfort or sensitivity, especially in more sensitive areas of the body. More commonly, though, people describe a mild tingling sensation when the needle is inserted to the appropriate depth.

How to find an acupuncturist

When you’re looking for an acupuncturist, make sure you choose someone with thorough training. You can ensure that by looking for someone who is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Before your first acupuncture visit

Are you ready to book your first appointment? Great. Here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind to make your experience go as smoothly as possible:

  • Have a snack first. Going on an empty stomach can cause you to become lightheaded or dizzy.
  • Coffee drinkers take note: It’s best to abstain from your cup of joe—or any caffeine for that matter—for 12 hours before your acupuncture treatment. Even low doses of caffeine may hinder acupuncture’s pain-fighting power, according to one study. (16)
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes. Your acupuncturist may have you change into a robe, or he or she may be able to access the necessary points by rolling up your pant legs or sleeves. Make it easy on them by wearing loose-fitting clothing.
  • This will be more than a one-time thing. Expect your acupuncturist to recommend repeat visits. The effects of acupuncture build over time, even if you feel relief after the first visit.

And remember, the conditions listed here aren’t the only ones that can be treated with acupuncture. Talk to your integrative health practitioner—and your new acupuncturist if you’ve found one—about all the ways this ancient healing method may be able to help you.

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