For thousands of years, acupuncture has been relied on as a healing modality and way to relieve anything from anxiety to aches and pains and beyond.
In spite of its many thousand-year history, modern culture is still skeptical to accept its benefits. But research has a lot to say about acupuncture and how it can impact your life for the better.
It’s so promising that some insurance companies now cover it as viable treatment options—in decades to come, it, along with many other alternative modalities, could be the backbone of preventive care.
Let’s explore the history, benefits, and reasons to use acupuncture in your wellness routine.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is one practice that is part of TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine. To perform acupuncture, extremely thin and short metal needles are placed at set points across the body.
These acupuncture points are tied to various conditions, and the issue being treated determines the points that the acupuncturist will use.
There are different types of acupuncture, though, with some alternative methods using pressure and even heat, as well as moxibustion, scraping, and cupping.
Acupuncture treatment sessions typically last between 10 to 30 minutes per side, although some points may be stimulated by leaving “seeds” in for up to a few days.
Acupuncture, while associated with Chinese medicine, is also used in other countries like Japan, Korea, and others. It works by viewing the body as a whole flow of energy, and that problems arise when the “chi” is blocked in certain areas.
Acupuncture helps to remove blocks and improve energy flow in the body.
How Does Acupuncture Help the Body?
While Traditional Chinese Medicine explains acupuncture as a way of unblocking the body’s energy, science also explains it in different ways. Research finds that acupuncture helps to release neurotransmitters in the brain.
But perhaps the biggest question is: does acupuncture always work?
Research studies and clinical trials show lots of promise, but it’s hard to create a definitive answer for acupuncture versus other treatments because there are so many variations in how acupuncture is practiced and all of the specifics of the person being treated.
Still, research generally finds acupuncture to be highly effective for certain conditions—ones we will explore below. It shows marginal or no effect for other conditions, which we will also dig into.
9 Research-Backed Benefits of Acupuncture
Acupuncture is a powerful therapeutic tool that can be used for many different conditions and disorders. These are the ones backed by research.
1. Stress-Reduction & Anxiety Relief
Acupuncture can help the body to relax, putting it in a better state to combat stress, anxiety, and mental fatigue. It promotes relaxation, feelings of warmth, and even euphoric feelings.
It can also reduce anxiety both in the short-term, such as during an acute period of anxiety, and in the long-term, like sustained periods of anxiety and panic relating to mental disorders. (4) It has even been shown to help address anxiety during pregnancy. (5)
2. Cognitive Function
Acupuncture can boost brain function in a few ways. It can help the brain feel and act more alert and can help to decrease stress that could contribute to brain fog or lingering fatigue from a poor night’s sleep.
It can even help to improve the quality of sleep and reduce next-day drowsiness. (7)
3. Anti-Depressant Effects
Acupuncture can work to reduce inflammation in the brain and can bolster certain neurotransmitters which together allow it to have an antidepressant impact on the brain’s function. (8)
It can even help to address prenatal depression as well as postpartum depression, or PPD. (9)
4. Inflammation Relief & Arthritis
Some elements of inflammation can be healing, but chronic inflammation becomes problematic.
Arthritis is often associated with chronic inflammation, with osteoarthritis being the most common joint disorder. More than 75 percent of people over the age of 80 have some type of osteoarthritic problems. (11)
Acupuncture can help to improve mobility in people with arthritis and a reduced range of motion, and it can improve their quality of life. (12)
Research finds acupuncture to be comparable to medications, including opioids, in addressing the pain of osteoarthritis. (13)
5. Sleep Support
Sleep disorders are incredibly common in our overworked, overstimulated modern society. CDC statistics show that more than 35 percent of all adults suffer from short sleep duration. (14)
The results of chronic sleep deprivation—even when only an hour or two short each night—are physically and mentally damaging.
Over the counter sleep aids, prescription sleep medicine, and even natural herbs and supplements to address sleep problems account for millions of dollars each year.
But many of these are habit-forming or come with hefty side effects, like next-day drowsiness.
Acupuncture helps to address sleep problems by promoting relaxation, lowering stress hormones which might interfere with the ability to fall asleep, and by addressing anxiety which might lead to more frequent wake-ups.
It can also produce a warming feeling of sleep-readiness that can help to lead to mental relaxation. It doesn’t have to be done before bed in order to have positive effects on sleep, either. (15)
6. Migraine and Headache Relief
Pain relievers and medications for these are not always effective and come with side effects that may or may not contribute to other problems. Studies show that acupuncture treatments can help alleviate migraine and headache pain. (17)
Acupuncture treatments can reduce the frequency of both migraines and tension headaches. (18)
It can also reduce the duration of a migraine or a headache when it does occur. (19)
7. Pain Relief
The pain-relieving power of acupuncture isn’t limited to head pain, either. More than 20 percent of the adult population suffers from some form of regular recurring pain.
When people deal with chronic pain, they also face the chronic use of pain relievers, and in many cases, these run the risk of being addictive or of causing damage to the liver or kidneys. Finding alternatives to pain medication is crucial for those who have chronic pain disorders or conditions.
Research shows that acupuncture is an extremely effective pain reliever and can even help to wean people off of dependence on opioid drugs. (20)
Acupuncture is able to effectively help manage pain because it influences how the body “reads” pain signals and also stimulates the release of the body’s natural opioids, creating an internal coping system. (21)
8. Weight Loss
While there are no magic bullets for weight loss, acupuncture can be a helpful aid in the quest to drop some pounds. Ear acupuncture has been shown to be useful for promoting weight loss by decreasing feelings of hunger and by helping to regulate appetite. (22)
It can also reduce stress levels and when people feel less stressed or taxed, they’re less likely to use food as a mechanism of comfort. Additionally, stress and inflammation go hand-in-hand, and acupuncture can reduce both.
Inflammation is often an underlying reason why people struggle to lose weight, and acupuncture can naturally help to encourage both to normalize.
While there is no guarantee that acupuncture will lead to pregnancy, many fertility clinics utilize acupuncture to help stimulate the development of a healthy uterine lining in preparation for pregnancy.
While research is mixed, some studies do show that acupuncture can increase the chances of conception after IVF treatment thanks to the optimized thickness of the uterine lining, where the embryo needs to implant. (23)
What Side Effects or Risks Exist for Acupuncture?
Acupuncture treatment is generally considered to be quite safe in spite of the fact that needles are used. However, in order for it to not be risky, the acupuncturist needs to use sterile practices and clean needle techniques to prevent blood contamination or contact from person to person.
The acupuncturist also needs to be properly credentialed, so it’s important to look into this prior to treatment. Acupuncture performed incorrectly can result in some complications including:
- Heart problems
- Excessive bleeding or bruising
- Lung problems
Even when your acupuncturist is fully licensed, there is a small chance that you might not feel great after a treatment. Some side effects of acupuncture can include:
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Balance problems
- Feelings of passing out
- Loss of strength (temporarily)
- Cold sweats
- Low pulse
- Low blood pressure
- Excessive sweating (temporarily)
These side effects are generally quite rare, but if at any time during treatment you do not feel well, you should tell your practitioner immediately and discontinue therapies.
Who Should Not Get Acupuncture?
There are certain situations where acupuncture is not recommended. Women who are pregnant should not get it unless their doctor explicitly says it is okay since in some cases it could lead to premature labor or other complications, especially in high-risk pregnancies.
Other reasons to avoid acupuncture treatments can include:
- Heart conditions
- Spinal disorders or disease
- Liver disease
- Clotting disorders or being on blood thinning medication
- Skin conditions
- Having a pacemaker
- Being on psychiatric medication for psychosis
Cautions and Considerations
Acupuncture is an incredible therapeutic tool, but it needs to be used appropriately. It is not effective for every situation and does not replace medical care. Never use acupuncture to avoid medical treatment or care for health needs.
You might feel amazing after just one acupuncture session, but for most cases, multiple sessions will be required to achieve the desired results.
The average time of care is between 8 to 12 sessions, with some practitioners doing sessions twice per week, and others only once or every other week. Your course of treatment will depend on the practitioner you’re seeing, the reason you are seeking acupuncture therapy, and how severe your health condition is.
Some insurance companies cover acupuncture treatments but most do not. Before committing to a course of care, ask about the upfront costs and what you’re expected to pay out of pocket.
Some practices offer acupuncture group sessions to cut down on the cost.
Conditions That Acupuncture Is Not Proven to Help
While acupuncture is an amazing therapeutic tool, it cannot fix everything. There is very little evidence that acupuncture can improve the following conditions:
- Digestive problems
- Abdominal pain or disorders (like Crohn’s disease)
- Cancer or cancer-related pain, like from treatments or chemotherapy
- Stiff neck
- Drug addiction or smoking cessation
Ultimately, acupuncture has been around for thousands of years and has been used for numerous health conditions and disorders. It is a generally safe therapy with the potential to dramatically improve quality of life.
If you’re interested in trying acupuncture, contact your healthcare provider for recommendations or seek out a licensed practitioner in your area for more information.
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- Vickers AJ, Linde K. Acupuncture for chronic pain. JAMA. 2014;311(9):955–956.
- Berman BM, Langevin HM, Witt CM, et al. Acupuncture for chronic low back pain. New England Journal of Medicine. 2010;363(5):454–461.
- Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2009;(1):CD001218.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.