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Acupuncture: In Depth

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What’s the Bottom Line?

How much do we know about acupuncture?

There have been extensive studies conducted on acupuncture, especially for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis/knee pain, and headache. However, researchers are only beginning to understand whether acupuncture can be helpful for various health conditions.

What do we know about the effectiveness of acupuncture?

Research suggests that acupuncture can help manage certain pain conditions, but evidence about its value for other health issues is uncertain.

What do we know about the safety of acupuncture?

Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced, well-trained practitioner using sterile needles. Improperly performed acupuncture can cause serious side effects.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body—most often by inserting thin needles through the skin. It is one of the practices used in traditional Chinese medicine.

See the NCCIH Web site for more information on traditional Chinese medicine.

What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of 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.

The effects of acupuncture on the brain and body and how best to measure them are only beginning to be understood. Current evidence suggests that many factors—like expectation and belief—that are unrelated to acupuncture needling may play important roles in the beneficial effects of acupuncture on pain.

Read more about acupuncture for these pain conditions and others:

What the Science Says About Safety and Side Effects of Acupuncture

  • Relatively few complications from using acupuncture have been reported. Still, complications have resulted from use of nonsterile needles and improper delivery of treatments.
  • When not delivered properly, acupuncture can cause serious adverse effects, including infections, punctured organs, collapsed lungs, and injury to the central nervous system.

NCCIH-Funded Research

NCCIH funds research to evaluate acupuncture’s effectiveness for various kinds of pain and other conditions, and to further understand how the body responds to acupuncture and how acupuncture might work. Some recent NCCIH-supported studies are looking at:

  • If acupuncture can reduce the frequency of hot flashes associated with menopause
  • Whether acupuncture can reduce pain and discomfort that may accompany chemotherapy
  • Objectively determining if actual acupuncture is more effective than simulated acupuncture or usual care for pain relief, and (if so) by how much.

More to Consider

  • Don’t use acupuncture to postpone seeing a health care provider about a health problem.
  • If you decide to visit an acupuncturist, check his or her credentials. Most states require a license, certification, or registration to practice acupuncture; however, education and training standards and requirements for obtaining these vary from state to state. 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. Most states require a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for licensing.
  • Some conventional medical practitioners—including physicians and dentists—practice acupuncture. In addition, national acupuncture organizations (which can be found through libraries or by searching the Internet) may provide referrals to acupuncturists. When considering practitioners, ask about their training and experience.
  • 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. For more information, see NCCIH’s fact sheet Paying for Complementary Health Approaches.
  • 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.

For More Information

NCCIH Clearinghouse

The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and complementary and integrative health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.

Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-644-6226

tty (for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers):

1-866-464-3615

Website: https://nccih.nih.gov/

Email: info@nccih.nih.gov (link sends e-mail)

PubMed®

A service of the National Library of Medicine, PubMed® contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. For guidance from NCCIH on using PubMed, see How To Find Information About Complementary Health Approaches on PubMed.

Website: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

NIH Clinical Research Trials and You

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has created a website, NIH Clinical Research Trials and You, to help people learn about clinical trials, why they matter, and how to participate. The site includes questions and answers about clinical trials, guidance on how to find clinical trials through ClinicalTrials.gov and other resources, and stories about the personal experiences of clinical trial participants. Clinical trials are necessary to find better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases.

Website: https://www.nih.gov/health-information/nih-clinical-research-trials-you

Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools Expenditures & Results (RePORTER)

RePORTER is a database of information on federally funded scientific and medical research projects being conducted at research institutions.

Website: https://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The FDA oversees the safety of many products, such as foods, medicines, dietary supplements, medical devices, and cosmetics. See its webpage on Dietary Supplements.

Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-463-6332

Website: https://www.fda.gov/

Key References

Acknowledgments

NCCIH thanks the following people for their technical expertise and review of this publication: Lixing Lao, Ph.D., University of Maryland School of Medicine; Karen Sherman, Ph.D., M.P.H., Group Health Research Institute, Seattle; Maria E. Suarez-Almazor, M.D., Ph.D., The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center; and Kristin Huntley, Ph.D., Partap Khalsa, D.C., Ph.D., and John (Jack) Killen, Jr., M.D., NCCIH.

This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.

NCCIH has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCIH.

Last Updated: January 2016