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Acupuncture

By

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. 

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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 your comfort and outcome. You can prepare for acupuncture by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal therapies, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Not moving during the therapy. Movement can cause pain, discomfort, and inaccurate placement of acupuncture needles.

  • Telling your acupuncturist and your doctor if you are pregnant, have a pacemaker or bleeding disorder, or take blood-thinning medications.

Questions to ask your doctor and your acupuncturist

You should discuss acupuncture with your regular doctor before seeing an acupuncturist. It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a doctor’s or acupuncturist’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your doctor or acupuncturist with concerns and questions before acupuncture and between appointments. 

It is also a good idea to bring the list of questions to your appointments. Questions to ask your doctor include:

  • Do you think acupuncture might help me?

  • Is acupuncture safe for me?

  • Can you recommend a qualified acupuncturist?

  • Should I continue to take my regular medication and other medical treatments while getting acupuncture?

  • When should I follow-up with you?

Questions to ask the acupuncturist include:

  • What are your qualifications?

  • Are you licensed to practice by the state if required? Are you certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine?

  • How long will each session take? How many sessions will I need?

  • Are your needles sterile and non-toxic and used only once?

  • How do you cleanse the area where you insert the needles? The acupuncturist should clean the therapy areas with alcohol or another skin disinfectant.

  • What is the cost of each therapy?

  • Can I return to my normal activities right after acupuncture?

  • When should I follow-up with you?

  • How should I contact you?  Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

Other tips 

Not all insurance plans cover acupuncture. Review your insurance plan before seeing an acupuncturist.  Find out if you must see an acupuncturist in your plan’s network and how much you have to pay out-of-pocket to see an out-of-network practitioner.

Search for an acupuncturist and research his or her ratings and adherence to nationally recognized quality standards of care on the Healthgrades website at www.healthgrades.com.

What can I expect after acupuncture?

Knowing what to expect after acupuncture can help you get back to your everyday life as soon as possible.

How will I feel after the acupuncture?

People generally return to normal activities right after acupuncture. Some people feel energized after their therapy and others feel relaxed. Tell your acupuncturist and your doctor if you have pain or discomfort after acupuncture. Understand that it might take several weeks for acupuncture to help your pain. Remember that acupuncture does not help all people.

When can I go home?

You will likely go home right after your acupuncture therapy.  

When should I call my acupuncturist or doctor?

It is important to keep your follow-up appointments with your regular doctor after acupuncture. Let your doctor and acupuncturist and doctor know how you responded to your acupuncture therapy and if it helped your pain or symptoms. 

Contact your doctor and acupuncturist with questions and concerns between appointments. Call your doctor right away or seek immediate medical care if you have new or unusual symptoms, such as numbness, bleeding, tingling, redness or swelling of the acupuncture points. 

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 13, 2016

© 2016 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Acupuncture. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture.
  2. Acupuncture in Cancer Therapy. American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. http://www.medicalacupuncture.org/acu_info/articles/cancertreatment.html
  3. Acupuncture: An Introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/introduction.htm.
  4. Acupuncture for Pain. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/acupuncture-for-pain.htm.
  5. Consumers Frequently Asked Questions. National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental medicine. http://www.nccaom.org/consumers/frequently-asked-questions-consumer.
  6. Doctor, What’s This Acupuncture All About? American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. http://www.medicalacupuncture.org/acu_info/articles/aboutacupuncture.html.
  7. Frequently Asked Questions About Acupuncture. American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. http://www.medicalacupuncture.org/acu_info/faqs.html.
  8. What Is Acupuncture? What Are The Benefits Of Acupuncture? Medical News Today. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/156488.php.

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