Catherine Spader, RN

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an ancient form of alternative or complementary therapy. It involves inserting tiny needles into specific places in the skin called acupuncture points. Acupuncture is commonly used to treat chronic pain. Acupuncture may also help manage and prevent many conditions, from anxiety and premenstrual syndrome to infertility and chronic fatigue syndrome. 

Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine practiced for thousands of years. Traditional acupuncturists believe that stimulating specific points on the body with tiny needles can restore and maintain health by balancing the flow of chi (pronounced “CHEE”), or vital energy, though the body. Western scientists believe that acupuncture may stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. This increases blood flow and your body's natural painkillers. 

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Research suggests that acupuncture may be effective for certain conditions, such as knee pain and low-back pain. More research is needed to verify how effective it is for these and other conditions. 

You should consider acupuncture as a complementary therapy. It should not replace a complete medical treatment plan. Acupuncture involves little risk for most people. Discuss all your treatment options with your doctor to learn which options are safest and most effective for you. 

Why is acupuncture performed? 

Most people have acupuncture to treat chronic pain. Your doctor may recommend acupuncture for pain that is difficult to control. Some people try acupuncture to avoid surgery or long-term pain medications, which can have serious risks and side effects. Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion before deciding on acupuncture. 

Acupuncture may treat the following conditions:  

  • Dental disorders including gum disease, toothache, and tooth extraction pain
  • Ear and auditory disorders including earache, ringing in the ears, and hearing problems

  • Eye disorders including conjunctivitis and cataracts

  • Gastrointestinal disorders including nausea, hiccups, chronic diarrhea or constipation, ulcers, heartburn, and intestinal obstruction

  • Health maintenance issues including strengthening the immune system, regulating blood pressure, and improving athletic performance

  • Mental and emotional disorders including stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, addiction, and weight control problems

  • Musculoskeletal disorders including joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, mobility problems, low-back pain, tendonitis, bursitis, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), and chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Neurological disorders including dizziness, headaches, migraines, sciatica, peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling in the hands and feet), and trigeminal neuralgia (facial nerve pain)

  • Reproductive conditions and symptoms including premenstrual syndrome (PMS), labor pain, menopause symptoms, infertility, urinary incontinence, and impotence

  • Respiratory disorders including colds, asthma, tonsillitis and bronchitis

  • Side effects of cancer treatments including nausea and vomiting

Who performs acupuncture?

Acupuncturists perform acupuncture therapy. A qualified acupuncturist is licensed by the state to practice acupuncture. Many states require acupuncturists to be certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Sometimes, acupuncturists are also qualified MDs (medical doctors) or DOs (doctors of osteopathy).

How is acupuncture performed?

Acupuncture therapies vary depending on the individual acupuncturist and your condition. Acupuncture often includes a series of therapies over a period of several weeks or more.  Acupuncture therapies last 45 to 90 minutes. 

Your acupuncture will be performed in an office or outpatient practice setting and generally includes these steps:

  1. Your acupuncturist will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms, medical history, lifestyle, and current therapies and medications.

  2. You may need to remove some clothing to expose acupuncture therapy areas. Acupuncture points are located all over the body. They are not always near the area where you have pain. You will wear a gown or sheet for modesty as needed.

  3. You will lie down on your side, face-up, or facedown, depending on your condition.

  4. Your acupuncturist will insert thin metal needles into specific areas of the body called acupuncture points. The needles are about the diameter of a strand of hair. They are inserted no more than two inches. Therapies generally require five to 20 needles.

  5. Your acupuncturist may gently move or twirl the needles or apply heat, microwave radiation, or mild electrical pulses to the needles.

  6. Your acupuncturist will remove the needles after about 10 to 20 minutes.

  7. Your acupuncturist may recommend other traditional Chinese medicine therapies, such as cupping and herbal formulas. Be sure to ask your regular doctor about any therapies before starting them.

Will I feel pain?

Your comfort and relaxation is important to you and your acupuncturist. Acupuncture generally causes very little discomfort, but you may have an achy feeling during needle insertion. Removing the needles generally causes no pain. Tell your acupuncturist if you have any discomfort or unusual sensations, such as numbness or tingling.

What are the risks and potential complications of acupuncture?  

Risks of acupuncture are minimal and complications are rare. Complications include infection and organ damage. Acupuncture performed by a qualified acupuncturist is generally safer than surgery, steroid injections, and anti-inflammatory medications.  

Conditions that increase your risk of complications include:

  • Being pregnant. Acupuncture can cause premature labor and delivery.

  • Having a bleeding disorder or taking blood-thinning medications. This increases the risk of bruising and bleeding.

  • Having a pacemaker. A pacemaker can misfire if electrical impulses are applied to the needles.

How do I prepare for my acupuncture therapy?

You are an important member of your own healthcare team. The steps you take before acupuncture can improve