Acupuncture: What It Is, Health Benefits, Safety & Side Effects

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Acupuncture is a popular technique in alternative and holistic medicine that’s thought to have benefits for anxiety, for fertility, weight loss and more.

Learn more about its purported health benefits and potential side effects and get answers to two common questions: Does it hurt and is it safe?

What is acupuncture?

"Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice [that] has been around for thousands of years," said Dr. Chiti Parikh, executive director of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing Program at New York-Presbyterian in collaboration with Weill Cornell Medicine. “It is practiced by inserting thin needles into specific anatomic points in the body.”

Those specific points can be found in any general area of the body, and an acupuncture point for a symptom such as pain could be far away from where the pain is occurring. Needles are often left in place for 15 to 30 minutes.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is based on a concept that vital energy known as Qi flows through the body along certain pathways known as meridians, Parikh explained.

Imagine those channels of energy like streams of water flowing through your body. If something like a tree fell, it could block a stream.

“When these channels get blocked," Parikh explained, "the flow of energy is impeded, leading to disease in the body.”

She said acupuncture is used to treat a host of symptoms and diseases.

"Research has shown that acupuncture may be helpful for several pain conditions, including back or neck pain, knee pain associated with osteoarthritis, headaches, cancer-related pain and postoperative pain, anxiety, fertility,” Parikh said.

Research compiled by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health shows that acupuncture may also help with:

  • Asthma

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome

  • Depression

  • Hot flashes (related to menopause)

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

  • Migraines

  • Myofascial pain syndrome

  • Smoking cessation

  • Sciatica

  • Seasonal allergies (allergic rhinitis, hay fever)

  • Treatment-related nausea and vomiting in cancer patients

  • Urinary incontinence

Does acupuncture hurt?

Because the needles used for acupuncture are smaller than ones used for other medical procedures, they’re “typically not painful,” Parikh said.

Dry needling versus acupuncture: What’s the difference?

Compared to acupuncture, dry needling is a “relatively new technique," Parikh said. While acupuncture needles are inserted into points along energy channels, dry needling inserts thicker needles that target trigger points within muscles to relieve tension and decrease pain, so dry needling may hurt. Licensed and trained acupuncturists can do acupuncture, whereas licensed and trained physical therapists can do dry needling.

Safety of acupuncture

Acupuncture is safe if it is “offered by a licensed, trained acupuncturist,” Parikh said.

In an online guide to acupuncture, the Mayo Clinic concurs.

"The risks of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner using sterile needles," it said, adding, "Single-use, disposable needles are now the practice standard, so the risk of infection is minimal."

The Mayo guide advises patients who are considering acupuncture to tell their practitioner if they have a bleeding disorder, a pacemaker or are pregnant.

People who have a blood disorder or take blood thinners may bleed or bruise. Acupuncture procedures in which mild electrical pulses are applied to the needles may interfere with pacemaker operation. And some acupuncture points may stimulate premature labor, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Side effects of acupuncture

You may feel some weakness after the treatment. "It is advised to rest and hydrate (drink water),” Parik said.

How often should you get acupuncture?

Six to eight acupuncture treatments are a common prescription, according to the Mayo Clinic. The number will depend on the condition being treated and how severe it is.

An acupuncture session may take up to one hour.

What a doctor says

The final verdict from Parikh is that acupuncture is safe and beneficial.

Bottom line

You can try acupuncture, but make sure you talk to your doctor or other health care provider first.

SOURCE: Chiti Parikh, MD, executive director, Integrative Health and Wellbeing Program at New York-Presbyterian, in collaboration with Weill Cornell Medicine, New York City


Mayo Clinic: Acupuncture

MedlinePlus: Medical Encyclopedia

National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Acupuncture: What You Need to Know

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