How does acupuncture work?

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is a type of treatment that involves inserting very thin needles into different depths, through the skin of a person at specific points on the body.

Research shows it can help relieve pain, and is used for a wide variety of other complaints.

However, there is limited evidence for its effectiveness in areas other than pain, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

It remains unclear how scientifically the acupuncture works. Some people claim that it works by balancing vital energy while others think that it has a neurological effect.

Acupuncture appears to be controversial among Western doctors and scientists.

What is acupuncture?

What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves inserting needles at certain points of the body.

An acupuncurist may inject needles into the body of a individual, in order to balance their strength.

It is claimed that this can help boost wellbeing and may cure some illnesses.

Conditions it is used to include various types of pain such as headaches, problems with blood pressure and, among others, whooping cough.

How does it work?

Traditional Chinese medicine explains that health is the result of a harmonious balance between the complementary extremes of “yin” and “yang” of the life-force known as “qi,” pronounced “chi.” Illness is said to be the result of a force imbalance.

Qi is said to flow through meridians, or pathways, in the human body. Those meridiens and flows of energy are accessible through 350 body acupuncture points.

Inserting needles with appropriate combinations into these points is said to bring the flow of energy back into proper balance.

There is no scientific evidence that the meridians or acupuncture points exist, and it is difficult to prove either they do or they don’t, but numerous studies suggest that acupuncture works for certain conditions.

Neuroscience has been used by some experts to explain acupuncture. Acupuncture points are seen as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. The stimulation increases blood flow while simultaneously triggering the activity of natural painkillers in the body.


Research in Germany has demonstrated that acupuncture can help relieve tension headaches and migraines.

The NCCIH note that it has been proven to help in cases of:

  • low back pain
  • neck pain
  • osteoarthritis
  • knee pain
  • headache and migraine

They list additional disorders which may benefit from acupuncture but need further scientific confirmation.

In 2003, a number of conditions were listed by the World Health Organization (WHO), in which they say acupuncture has been proven effective.

These include:

  • high and low blood pressure
  • chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • some gastric conditions, including peptic ulcer
  • painful periods
  • dysentery
  • allergic rhinitis
  • facial pain
  • morning sickness
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • sprains
  • tennis elbow
  • sciatica
  • dental pain
  • reducing the risk of stroke
  • inducing labor

Other conditions for which the WHO says acupuncture can help but need more evidence include:

  • fibromyalgia
  • neuralgia
  • post-operative convalescence
  • substance, tobaccor and alcohol dependence
  • spine pain
  • stiff neck
  • vascular dementia
  • whooping cough, or pertussis
  • Tourette syndrome

The WHO also suggests it may help treat a variety of infections, including some urinary tract infections and epidemic hemorrhagic fever.

However, they point out that “only national health authorities may determine the diseases, symptoms and conditions for which treatment with acupuncture might be recommended.”


Acupuncture can be beneficial in that:

  • Performed correctly, it is safe.
  • There are very few side effects.
  • It can be effectively combined with other treatments.
  • It can control some types of pain.
  • It may help patients for whom pain medications are not suitable.

The NCCIH is suggesting that people should not use acupuncture instead of seeing a conventional health care provider.

What to expect

According to traditional Chinese medical theory, acupuncture points are located on meridians, through which vital energy runs. That energy is called “qi” or “chi.”

An acupuncturist may evaluate the patient and determine their condition, insert one or more small, sterile needles, and offer guidance on self-care or other alternative therapies, such as chinese herbs.

Depending on where the needles are to be inserted the patient will be asked to lie on their back, front, or one side. The acupuncturist should use sterile needles, which are single-use, disposable. The patient may experience a very brief stinging or tingling sensation as each needle is inserted.

Occasionally, after the needle is inserted, there is a dull ache at the base of the needle which then subsides. Acupuncture tends to be relatively painless.

Sometimes after insertion the needles get heated or stimulated with electricity.

The needles are to remain in place for 5 to 30 minutes.

The number of required treatments depends on the individual. For several months a person with a chronic condition may need one to two treatments per week. An acute problem usually gets better after 8 to 12 sessions.


All therapies have risks as well as benefits.

The possible risks of acupuncture are:

  • It is dangerous if a patient has a bleeding disorder or takes blood thinners.
  • Bleeding, bruising, and soreness may occur at the insertion sites.
  • Unsterilized needles may infect the patient.
  • In rare cases, a needle may break and damage an internal organ.
  • When inserted deeply into the chest or upper back, there is a risk of collapsed lung, but this is very rare.

The United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate acupuncture needles as medical devices.Their manufacture and labelling needs to meet certain standards. The needles shall be sterile, non-toxic, and registered by a licensed practitioner for one use only.

As with any alternative treatment, it is best to use it in cases of chronic or severe illness alongside conventional therapies.

How do I find an acupuncturist?

To find a licensed practitioner, visit the National Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Certification Commission (NCCAOM) web site. Most states require that this board licenses the practitioners. Practitioners are advised to ask about their experience and training.

The NCCIH points out that some insurance policies are now covering acupuncture, but it is important to first check whether the costs are being covered.

According to Costhelper Health, it will cost from $75 to $95 for an acupuncture session and medical consultation and cost between $50 and $70 for a routine visit.