Acupuncture is a type of therapy that involves inserting fine needles into your skin at specific points, to help treat health problems and conditions. Acupuncture is classed as a complementary therapy – it may be used alongside conventional medical treatment that you might be receiving.
How does acupuncture work?
Practitioners of acupuncture are known as acupuncturists. They use acupuncture to help prevent or treat a wide range of conditions.
Acupuncture has existed as part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. But it’s only become part of modern medicine in the West in the past 30 years or so. The traditional belief is that acupuncture helps to restore the flow of energy or ‘Qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’) through your body. Practitioners of TCM believe that Qi flows through your body in channels called meridians and that disruption of this flow leads to ill health. Traditional acupuncture is believed to restore the proper flow of Qi.
Modern practice is based on the theory that acupuncture stimulates nerves under your skin, which can lead to the release of pain-relieving endorphins.
What is acupuncture used for?
The only circumstances for which there is enough good evidence to recommend acupuncture, are the prevention of tension-type headaches and migraines.
People often try acupuncture for a range of other problems though, particularly conditions that affect muscles, bones, and joints. These include neck and back pain, knee pain associated with osteoarthritis, and overactive bladder. But there isn’t as much evidence of how effective acupuncture is for these conditions. For more information, see our section on Benefits.
Where can I find an acupuncturist?.
AB Acupuncture offers professional acupuncture services designed to cater to a variety of ailments such as fibromyalgia and Lyme disease. Click here to learn more.
If your acupuncturist isn’t medically trained, it’s important to see a doctor before you seek treatment. Your doctor can confirm a diagnosis and check that acupuncture is a safe option.
What happens during acupuncture?
At your first visit, your acupuncturist will want to get a detailed understanding of your health problem, as well as your lifestyle in general. They are likely to ask you lots of questions about your medical history, diet, and lifestyle. It’s important to tell your acupuncturist the following information:
- if you’re pregnant or could be pregnant
- if you have a pacemaker
- if you have epilepsy
- if you have a condition that may affect your blood
Your acupuncturist will probably take your pulse and may ask to examine your tongue. They may also feel for areas of muscular pain or tension in the tissues under your skin.
From this consultation, your acupuncturist will put together a treatment plan.
Your acupuncturist will insert a number of very fine, sterilized needles into your skin at specific points on your body. The number of needles your acupuncturist will use varies – but it may be only two or three. The places where the needles are inserted may not necessarily be close to where you’re experiencing symptoms. For instance, your acupuncturist may insert needles into your foot or hand to treat headaches. Many acupuncture points are on your lower arms and legs, so try to wear something where these areas can be easily accessed. Acupuncture is generally not painful, but many people describe feeling a mild tingling sensation.
Sometimes, other methods are used to stimulate acupuncture points, including pressure, lasers, and very low voltage electrical current. Traditional acupuncturists may also use other techniques such as heat, massage, and rubbing your skin, alongside inserting needles.
Your treatment plan will be tailored to you, but typically, a course of treatment lasts for between five and eight weekly sessions. You’ll normally know whether it’s working for you within three to four sessions.
Is acupuncture effective?
The scientific evidence for how well acupuncture works is often of quite poor quality, which makes it hard to be certain about how effective it really is.
The only two circumstances for which acupuncture is recommended, are the prevention of migraines and tension-type headaches. The available evidence suggests acupuncture can be effective for these conditions.
Clinical trials have also shown acupuncture to have some benefits in the treatment of osteoarthritis. However, these benefits were only small and not enough to be noticeable to patients with this condition.
There have been many studies looking at how effective acupuncture is for a range of other conditions, including ankle sprain, shoulder pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. But the available evidence either hasn’t shown or hasn’t been of good enough quality to show that acupuncture can help any of these things.
Research is being carried out all the time. For many of the ways acupuncture might be used, more research needs to be done to find out how effective it is.
What are the risks of acupuncture?
All treatments carry some level of risk, and acupuncture is no different. If you have acupuncture, you may have some side-effects, which are usually only mild and temporary. Complications are unexpected problems that may happen during or after your treatment. These are described below.
Side-effects of acupuncture may include:
- feeling dizzy
- discomfort where the needle was inserted – including bruising or soreness
- feeling sick or vomiting
- finding it hard to breathe
- a temporary worsening of your symptoms
You may feel tired and drowsy after your treatment, so it’s worth bearing this in mind if you plan to drive home.
Very rarely, there’s a risk of getting an infection in the area where a needle has been inserted. Your acupuncturist should always use sterile needles to reduce the risk of infections.
How much does acupuncture cost?
There is no fixed price for acupuncture and the cost will vary depending on where you live.
Your first consultation will usually cost between $50 and $70 and follow-up appointments will be about $40 to $50 per session.
Some GP practices and hospitals offer integrated healthcare with complementary therapies including acupuncture. Ask your GP if it’s available in your local area.