Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. A key component of Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain.
Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as qi or chi (CHEE) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance.
In contrast, many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. This stimulation appears to boost the activity of your body's natural painkillers and increase blood flow.
Why it's done
You may try acupuncture for symptomatic relief of a variety of diseases and conditions, including:
- Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
- Labor pain
- Low back pain
- Menstrual cramps
- Dental pain
- Tennis elbow
The risks of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner. Possible side effects and complications include:
- Soreness. After acupuncture, you might have soreness, minor bleeding or bruising at the needle sites
- Organ injury. If the needles are pushed in too deeply, they could puncture an internal organ — particularly the lungs. This is an extremely rare complication in the hands of an experienced practitioner.
- Infections. Licensed acupuncturists are required to use sterile, disposable needles. A reused needle could expose you to diseases such as hepatitis.
Not everyone is a good candidate for acupuncture or for particular types of acupuncture. Conditions that may increase your risks of complications include:
- Bleeding disorders. Your chances of bleeding or bruising from the needles increase if you have a bleeding disorder or if you're taking blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin).
- Having a pacemaker. Some types of acupuncture involve applying mild electrical pulses to the needles, which can interfere with a pacemaker's operation.
- Being pregnant. Some types of acupuncture are thought to stimulate labor, which could result in a premature delivery.
How you prepare
No special preparation is required before acupuncture treatment.
Choosing a practitioner
If you're considering acupuncture, do the same things you would do if you were choosing a doctor:
- Ask people you trust for recommendations.
- Check the practitioner's training and credentials. Most states require that nonphysician acupuncturists pass an exam conducted by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
- Interview the practitioner. Ask what's involved in the treatment, how likely it is to help your condition and how much it will cost.
- Find out whether the expense is covered by your insurance.
Don't be afraid to tell your doctor you're considering acupuncture. He or she may be able to tell you about the success rate of using acupuncture for your condition or recommend an acupuncture practitioner for you to try.
What you can expect
Each person who performs acupuncture has a unique style, often blending aspects of Eastern and Western approaches to medicine. To determine the type of acupuncture treatment that will help you the most, your practitioner may ask you many questions about your symptoms, behaviors and lifestyle. He or she may also closely examine:
- The parts of your body that are painful
- The shape, coating and color of your tongue
- The color of your face
- The strength, rhythm and quality of the pulse in your wrist
This initial evaluation may take up to 60 minutes. Subsequent appointments usually take about a half-hour. A common treatment plan for a single complaint would typically involve six to 12 treatments, scheduled over a few months.
Acupuncture points are located in all areas of the body. Sometimes the appropriate points are far removed from the area of your pain. Your acupuncture practitioner will tell you the general location of the planned treatment and if articles of clothing need to be removed. If appropriate, a gown, towel or sheet will be provided to preserve your modesty. After you lie down on a padded table, the treatment begins.
- Needle insertion. Acupuncture needles are very thin, so insertion usually causes very little discomfort. Between five and 20 needles are used in a typical treatment. You may feel a deep, aching sensation when a needle reaches the correct depth.
- Needle manipulation. Your practitioner may gently move or twirl the needles after they've been placed. Another option is to apply heat or mild electrical pulses to the needles.
- Needle removal. In most cases, the needles will remain in place for 10 to 20 minutes while you lie still and relax. There is usually no sensation of discomfort when the needles are removed. Your acupuncture practitioner should discard the needles after removal — reusable needles can spread infection.
Some people feel relaxed while others feel energized after an acupuncture treatment. But not everyone responds to acupuncture. If your symptoms don't begin to improve within a few weeks, acupuncture may not be the right treatment for you.
The benefits of acupuncture are sometimes difficult to measure, but many people find it helpful as a means to control a variety of painful conditions.
Several studies, however, indicate that some types of simulated acupuncture appear to work just as well as real acupuncture. There also is evidence that acupuncture works best in people who expect it to work.
Since acupuncture has few side effects, it may be worth a try if you're having trouble controlling pain with more-conventional methods.