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What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is the practice of puncturing the skin with very thin needles at certain points in the body. The goal is to relieve symptoms of certain health conditions. The acupuncture points are thought to have electrical properties, which affect chemical neurotransmitters in the body.

Acupuncture is an ancient practice in Chinese medicine.  Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe the human body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points connected by pathways or meridians. These pathways create an energy flow (Qi, pronounced "chee") through the body that is responsible for overall health. Disruption of the energy flow can cause disease. By applying acupuncture to certain points, it is thought to improve the flow of Qi.

Studies have shown that acupuncture is effective for certain conditions.

Acupuncture is not for everyone. If you choose to see an acupuncturist, discuss it with your doctor first and find a practitioner who is licensed as having proper training and credentials.

What does acupuncture feel like?

Acupuncture is done using hair-thin needles. Most people report feeling minimal pain as the needle is inserted. The needle is inserted to a point that produces a sensation of pressure or ache. Needles may be heated during the treatment or mild electric current may be applied to them. Some people report acupuncture makes them feel energized. Others say they feel relaxed.

Improper placement of the needle can cause pain during treatment. Needles must be sterilized to prevent infection. That is why it is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner. The FDA regulates acupuncture needles just as it does other medical devices under good manufacturing practices and single-use standards of sterility.

Instead of needles, other forms of stimulation are sometimes used, including:

  • Heat

  • Pressure (acupressure)

  • Friction

  • Suction

  • Impulses of electromagnetic energy

How does acupuncture affect the body?

Acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system. This, in turn, releases chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These biochemical changes may stimulate the body's natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well-being.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) studies have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment alone or in combination with conventional therapies to treat the following:

  • Nausea caused by surgical anesthesia and cancer chemotherapy

  • Dental pain after surgery

  • Addiction

  • Headaches

  • Menstrual cramps

  • Tennis elbow

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Myofascial pain

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Low back pain

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Asthma

It may also help with stroke rehabilitation.

What conditions may benefit from acupuncture?

Many Americans seek acupuncture treatment for relief of chronic pain, such as arthritis or low back pain. Acupuncture, however, has expanded uses in other parts of the world. Before considering acupuncture, talk to your doctor. Conditions that may benefit from acupuncture include the following:



Irritable bowel syndrome




Sore throat

Menstrual pain



Back pain
Muscle cramping
Muscle pain and weakness
Neck pain

Neurogenic bladder dysfunction
Parkinson's disease
Postoperative pain



Allergic rhinitis

Irritable bladder
Male infertility
Some forms of impotence

Considerations when choosing acupuncture

Because scientific studies have not fully explained how acupuncture works within the framework of Western medicine, acupuncture remains a source of controversy. It is important to take precautions when deciding about acupuncture.

  • Discuss acupuncture with your doctor first. Acupuncture is not for everyone. Discuss all the treatments and medications (dietary supplements, prescription and over-the-counter) you are taking. If you have a pacemaker, are at risk for infection, have chronic skin problems, are pregnant, or have breast or other implants, be sure to tell your doctor. Acupuncture may be risky to your health if you fail to mention these matters.

  • Do not rely on a diagnosis of disease by an acupuncture practitioner. If you have received a diagnosis from a doctor, you may wish to ask him or her whether acupuncture might help.

  • Choose a licensed acupuncture practitioner. Your own doctor may be a good resource for referrals to a licensed or certified practitioner. Friends and family members may also be good sources of referrals. You do not have to be a doctor to practice acupuncture or to become a certified acupuncturist. Approximately 30 states have established training standards for certification in acupuncture, although not all states require acupuncturists to obtain a license to practice. Although not all certified acupuncturists are doctors, the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture can provide a referral list of doctors who practice acupuncture.

  • Consider costs and insurance coverage. Before beginning treatment, ask the acupuncturist about the number of treatments needed and how much the treatments will cost. Some insurers cover the cost of acupuncture while others do not. It is important to know before you begin treatment whether acupuncture is covered by your insurance.

Acupuncture - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Garilli, Bianca, ND
Online Medical Reviewer: Moloney Johns, Amanda, PA-C, MPAS, BBA
Last Review Date: 2015-05-15T00:00:00
Last Modified Date: 2015-07-24T00:00:00
Posting Date: 2008-11-30T00:00:00
Published Date: 2015-07-24T00:00:00
Last Review Date: 2007-03-30T00:00:00
© 2015 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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