Introducing Acupuncture Introducing Acupuncture
National Center to Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Can’t seem to get rid of that pounding headache? Doesn’t feel like the pain medication alone is taking away that lower back pain? One option that a number of people with pain investigate – especially chronic pain – is acupuncture.

What is it?

A traditional Chinese practice that began over 2,000 years ago, acupuncture today combines medicinal traditions from Japan, Korea, and other countries. The practice of acupuncture is based on the belief that there are more than 2,000 anatomic locations throughout the body that connect with energy pathways called meridians. It is believed that energy called Qi (pronounced "chee") flows through the meridians and is responsible for maintaining spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical balance.

Qi is believed to be influenced by opposing forces called yin (negative energy) and yang (positive energy) and that when yin and yang become unbalanced, health problems occur. That’s where acupuncture comes into the picture. Acupuncture is used with the intention of removing imbalances within yin and yang, normalizing energy flow, and restoring or maintaining health.

How does it work?

While acupuncture encompasses a variety of techniques, the procedure that has been most studied scientifically involves stimulating points throughout the body by penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation. There are various theories as to why acupuncture may have effects, primarily on pain. It may stimulate the central nervous system to release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. It may signal the body to release pain-relieving chemicals called opioids, as well as hormones like endorphins. Studies have shown that changes in brain chemistry affect the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, which play a role in processes that regulate blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature.

Scientific studies have found benefits from acupuncture for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, and for postoperative dental pain. Acupuncture has been found to be possibly useful for addiction, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia and asthma. In the area of chronic pain, the findings from clinical studies have been mixed (positive and negative). While acupuncture is increasingly incorporated into mainstream western medicine, further research into its effectiveness is necessary.

Ouch? Does it hurt?

While everyone experiences acupuncture differently, most people feel little to no pain as the needles are inserted. Some people are energized by treatment, while others feel relaxed. In any case, the effects of acupuncture are not the same for everyone, due to the differences in factors such as lifestyle, age, and physiology.

If you are considering acupuncture

Anyone who is considering trying acupuncture or any other form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) should inform all of their health care providers. This is for safety; providers need to make sure that all aspects of health care are working together. It is also important to seek out a qualified licensed acupuncture practitioner. One reason to do so is that improper needle placement, movement of the patient, or a defective needle can cause soreness and pain during treatment. For more information on how to find and select a CAM practitioner, go to the NCCAM web site or contact the NCCAM Clearinghouse at 1-888-644-6226.

What is NCCAM?

Created by a mandate from the U.S. Congress in 1998, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health. NCCAM is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative health practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary and alternatives medicine researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals.