What Is Acupuncture?

If you've only read about it, you likely wonder, "What is acupuncture? It's is an ancient art that creates an “energy balance” to treat a disease, condition, or pain. The medical community, however, is split on acupuncture’s efficacy.


A recent Australian study found that acupuncture is a safe and effective alternative to pain medications for some emergency department patients.

© Andrey Popov | Dreamstime

Acupuncture is a technique that treats illness or provides local anesthesia by inserting needles for 10 to 30 minutes at specific sites on channels, or meridians, which correspond with internal organs. The effect of acupuncture, in theory, is to create a “life force,” or energy balance, to influence the progress of a disease or a condition, such as chronic pain.

Acupuncture is not recommended for people who are taking certain drugs or who are extremely anxious. It also is not appropriate for conditions such as head injuries, herniated discs, or unstable joints.

Acupuncture Evidence

The trend has been toward more acceptance of acupuncture as a complementary treatment of certain conditions.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says that acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option to consider for people with chronic pain. However, clinical practice guidelines are inconsistent in recommendations about acupuncture.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke states, “Medications, acupuncture, local electrical stimulation, and brain stimulation, as well as surgery, are some treatments for chronic pain.”

Recent studies have shown that acupuncture has various degrees of effectiveness in treating fibromyalgia, knee osteoarthritis, tension and migraine headaches, lower back pain, and myofascial pain.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that acupuncture was associated with improved pain outcomes approximately half the time when compared to no treatment and sham acupuncture, aka fake acupuncture. Sham acupuncture was successful in treating pain 42.5 percent of the time.

Separate studies in the United Kingdom and Korea found that there was “very little compelling evidence” that acupuncture reduced pain.

“Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option,” concluded a review of studies in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Acupuncture Boosts Effectiveness of Care for Chronic Pain

Health specialists at the University of York found that acupuncture can enhance the effectiveness of standard medical care by reducing the severity of chronic pain and depression. The research team analyzed 29 high-quality trials involving approximately 18,000 patients treated with acupuncture and standard care. The patients reported chronic pain in the neck, lower back, head, and knee. The addition of acupuncture significantly reduced the number of headaches, as well as the severity of neck and lower back pain. Acupuncture also lessened pain and disability associated with osteoarthritis, which led patients to being less reliant on drugs to control pain.

National Institute for Health Research Journals Library, January 2017

The reports seem to suggest that the effectiveness of acupuncture varies, depending on the nature of the pain, the location, the person administering it, and the patient receiving treatment.

If you decide to seek pain relief through acupuncture, ask your physician to recommend a licensed acupuncturist who is certified by the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (AAMA).

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, when acupuncture is combined with traditional pain relief methods, it may be helpful for the following types of chronic pain:

  • Low back pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Tennis elbow
  • Stroke rehabilitation
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Muscle pain (knots)
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

A 2017 review of 29 trials concluded that acupuncture can enhance standard care by reducing the severity of chronic pain and depression.


Electroacupuncture delivers an electrical current through acupuncture needles to restore the flow of energy throughout the body. Thirty minutes appears to be the optimum time for electroacupuncture effectiveness.

A study in the journal Anesthesiology said that electroacupuncture, when combined with low dosages of conventional analgesics, provides effective pain management.

The journal Lasers in Medical Science reported that laser acupuncture was effective in treating the pain associated with temporomandibular disorder. The FDA considers these laser acupuncture devices to be experimental.

Electroacupuncture treatment ranges from relatively painless to uncomfortable. The needles are half the thickness of those used to give injections and produce a sensation more like an insect bite than a shot. Adverse side effects are rare, but may include bleeding, infection, and dizziness.


In acupressure, stimulation is provided by touch rather than needles. When pressure is applied at specific points on the body, it can (in theory) rebalance the body’s energy flow. Shiatsu is a Japanese form of acupressure.

A limited amount of evidence supports the practice of acupressure for pain control, relaxation, and stress management. One study showed that people with chronic low back pain who were treated with acupressure had an 89 percent greater reduction in disability compared to those in a physical therapy group. Two other studies have shown limited success in using the practice to treat pain.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jim Brown, PhD

As a former college professor of health education, Jim Brown brings a unique perspective to health and medical writing. He has authored 14 books on health, medicine, fitness, and sports. … Read More

View all posts by Jim Brown, PhD

Enter Your Login Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.