What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is one of the many practices used in traditional Chinese medicine. The technique most often studied is when practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, most often by inserting thin needles through the skin and manipulating by hand or by electrical stimulation.
Is it Safe?
Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced, well-trained practitioner using sterile needles. Improperly performed acupuncture has been known to cause serious side effects, including infections, punctured organs, collapsed lungs and injury to the central nervous system. However, relatively few complications from using acupuncture have been reported.
How Much Do We Know About Acupuncture?
Results from a number of studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic such as low-back pain, neck pain and osteoarthritis knee pain. It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches. Therefore, acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider. However, clinical practice guidelines are inconsistent in recommendations about acupuncture as researchers are only beginning to understand whether acupuncture can be helpful for various health conditions:
Low Back Pain:
A 2010 review by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that acupuncture relieved low-back pain immediately after treatment, but not over longer periods of time. Clinical practice guidelines issued by the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians in 2007 recommend acupuncture as one of several non-drug approaches physicians should consider when patients with chronic low-back pain do not respond to self-care, such as remaining active, applying heat and taking pain-relieving medications.[i]
A large German study with more than 14,000 participants evaluated acupuncture care for neck pain. The researchers found that participants reported greater pain relief than those who didn’t receive it; but researchers didn’t test actual acupuncture against simulated acupuncture. Simulated procedures use blunted needles that do not puncture the skin. Previous studies showed that acupuncture is consistently better than no treatment, but not necessarily better than simulated acupuncture at relieving pain.[ii]
Osteoarthritis Knee Pain:
A 2010 review of studies of acupuncture for knee or hip osteoarthritis concluded that actual acupuncture was more helpful for osteoarthritis pain than either simulated or no acupuncture. However, the difference between actual and simulated acupuncture was very small, while the difference between acupuncture and no acupuncture was large.[iii]
A 2009 systematic review of studies concluded that actual acupuncture, compared with simulated acupuncture or pain-relieving drugs, helped people with tension-type headaches. A 2008 systematic review of studies suggested that actual acupuncture has a very slight advantage over simulated acupuncture in reducing tension-type headache intensity and the number of headache days per month.[iv]
Results of a review combining data from 11 clinical trials with more than 1,200 participants suggested that acupuncture and acupuncture point stimulation may help with certain symptoms associated with cancer treatments. So far there is not enough evidence to determine if acupuncture can help people with depression, nor does it seem to help people to stop smoking.
Clinical Studies are Challenging:
Studying acupuncture is challenging because trials often differ in terms of technique, the number of acupuncture points, the number of sessions and the duration of those sessions. Also, the results of an acupuncture session may be associated with a person’s beliefs and expectations about their treatment or from their relationship with the therapist, rather than from acupuncture treatment itself.
More to Consider:
Don’t use acupuncture instead of seeing your chiropractor about a health problem. If you do decide to visit an acupuncturist, check his or her credentials, training and experience. Most practitioners require a license, certification or registration to practice. However, education and training standards and the requirements for obtaining these vary greatly, depending upon where the practitioner is located. Although a license does not ensure quality of care, it does indicate that the practitioner meets certain standards regarding the knowledge and use of acupuncture. Ask the practitioner about the estimated number of treatments needed and how much each treatment will cost. Some insurance companies may cover the costs of acupuncture, while others may not.
To start your search – acupuncture organizations can be found through libraries or by searching the Internet. Even some conventional practitioners – including chiropractors, physicians and dentists – practice acupuncture.
Help your health care providers give you better coordinated and safe care by telling them about all the health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health.
Adding regular spinal check-ups with your chiropractor will also help keep you in the best of health and may not require the assistance of acupuncture, especially if you do not like needles!
[i] Berman BM, Langevin HM, Witt CM, et al. Acupuncture for chronic low back pain. New England Journal of Medicine. 2010;363(5):454–461.
[ii] Vickers AJ, Linde K. Acupuncture for chronic pain. JAMA. 2014;311(9):955–956.Witt CM, Jena S, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for patients with nchronic neck pain. Pain. 2006;125(1–2):98–106.
[iii] Manheimer E, Cheng K, Linde K, et al. Acupuncture for peripheral joint osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2010;(1):CD001977. Accessed at http://www.thecochranelibrary.com on July 2, 2014.
[iv] Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2009;(1):CD001218. Accessed at http://www.thecochranelibrary.com on July 2, 2014.