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Acupuncture may help alleviate pain.

A specialist inserts a needle during an acupuncture session. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
A specialist inserts a needle during an acupuncture session.


Acupuncture is part of a medical system that includes alternative healing practices such as herbal treatment, massage and meditation. It is based on the idea that diseases are caused by a disruption in the life energy (chi) and an imbalance between the female (yin) and male (yang) essences. Acupuncture attempts to restore the flow of chi and restore the yin-yang balance by inserting thin needles into the skin at specific points, depending on the ailment.

Acupuncture originated in China where it is widely accepted as part of traditional medicine. It has been practiced there as well as in Japan, Korea and other parts of Asia for thousands of years. However, in the United States acupuncture is considered to be alternative or complementary medicine. Scientists are currently studying the effects of acupuncture on a wide range of medical conditions and have found it to be most effective in relieving pain. Acupuncture has relatively few complicationsthe most serious side effects are usually due to an unqualified practitioner.

History of Acupuncture

According to American Acupuncture, acupuncture may have been practiced in China as early as 3000 B.C., as evidenced by the discovery of stone needles dating to that period. However, the archaeological evidence for the practice of acupuncture is much stronger during the Han dynasty from 202 B.C. to A.D. 220. The oldest medical text that refers to acupuncture is the Nei Ching Su Wen, which was completed around 200 B.C.

Acupuncture was introduced to the United States in the 1970s. In 1972, a reporter named James Reston underwent an emergency appendectomy in China. He was treated with acupuncture for the post-operative discomfort and wrote about his experience in an article that appeared in The New York Times. The National Acupuncture Association started giving seminars and presenting research on acupuncture beginning in 1972 and also established the UCLA Acupuncture Pain Clinic in that year. The Internal Revenue Service first allowed acupuncture as a deductible medical expense in 1973.

Acupuncture Therapy

According to the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture therapy normally consists of a series of 30-minute sessions given once or twice each week, for as many as 12 sessions. This outpatient procedure typically consists of an exam, an assessment, needle insertions and a discussion on self-care.

The patient lies on a comfortable surface in a position that allows easy access to the location where the needles are to be inserted. The acupuncturist should only use single-use sterile packaged needles. The needles may cause a brief stinging sensation when they go in, but most patients do not find it to be overly painful. It is also common to feel a deep ache when the needle is at the correct depth. Once placed, the needles may be gently moved or subjected to heat or electricity. A single session may involve the placement of as many as 12 needles that are kept in place for up to 20 minutes.

Conditions Treated by Acupuncture

Acupuncture is primarily used in the United States to treat pain, although some studies have also shown promising results for the treatment of nausea and vomiting. Acupuncture may be used by itself to treat these conditions or as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. According to Seton Family of Hospitals, a recent study shows that standard treatment is more likely to provide significant relief for chronic headaches, especially migraines. Acupuncture may also be effective in treating a breakdown of the cartilage protecting joints known as osteoarthritis. A recent study of patients with osteoarthritis found that acupuncture reduced their pain and increased the freedom of movement in their knee joints.

Other specific causes of pain that are commonly treated with acupuncture include the following:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition caused by pressure on a wrist nerve that results in tingling, numbness, pain and weakness in the fingers and hand
  • Myofascial pain, caused by muscles spasms
  • Fibromyalgia, characterized by pain and tenderness throughout the body
  • Labor pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Tennis elbow
  • Dental pain

Scientific Effectiveness of Acupuncture

A scientific study must generally test a medical treatment against a placebo. For a tablet medication, this is easily done by substituting it with a sugar pill for some study participants. However, in the case of acupuncture, it is very difficult to devise an effective placebo version to use as a control. In fact, several studies showed that false acupuncture was nearly as effective as the real thing. This makes it difficult to determine the scientific effectiveness of acupuncture, although preliminary studies have shown promising results for the symptomatic relief of pain.

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