Using acupuncture to treat pain

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is one of the oldest healing practices in the world, and it’s now a popular treatment for all kinds of pain. In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s believed that acupuncture can reduce pain by changing the flow of energy in the body. This energy, known as qi (pronounced like “chee” or “kee”), travels along paths called meridians. A person may feel pain if his or her meridians are blocked. Inserting thin needles into the skin at specific points can clear out the meridians and restore health.

In 2007, more than three million Americans said that they’d used acupuncture in the past year. Acupuncture is commonly used to treat:

  • Back, neck, and joint pain
  • Severe migraines
  • Arthritis
  • Menstrual cramping

What does acupuncture involve?

A licensed healthcare provider called an acupuncturist will ask you some basic questions about your pain and your medical history. He or she may also feel around the painful area, look at the shape and color of your tongue, and take your pulse. All of this information can help the acupuncturist figure out where to place the needles.

Acupuncturists typically use 5 to 20 needles in one treatment session. The needles are flexible and as thin as a strand of hair. They don’t go deep into the skin, so they hardly ever hurt or cause bleeding. Removing the needles shouldn’t be painful, either.

What does science say about it?

There are hundreds of studies about using acupuncture to treat pain. So far, the results have been mixed – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Some studies show that acupuncture can:

  • Reduce inflammation
  • Increase blood flow throughout the body
  • Boost the immune system
  • Affect parts of the brain that respond to pain

But other studies find that people can’t always tell the difference between sham (fake) acupuncture and real acupuncture. Researchers have also discovered that acupuncture works better when people expect it to work.

How do I find an acupuncturist?

If you’ve decided to try acupuncture, keep in mind that finding an acupuncturist is a lot like choosing any other doctor or healthcare provider.

  • Ask your friends or family for advice. They may be able to give you the names of acupuncturists that they know.
  • Do a background check. Most states require acupuncturists to have a license. Go to the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture website to find a list of medical doctors in your area who have an acupuncture license. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine certifies acupuncturists who aren’t doctors; they must pass an exam to get certified. You can go here to find a licensed acupuncturist.
  • Make a list of questions. Ask your acupuncturist about the treatment and how it can help you.
  • Call your health insurance company. Some insurance plans cover acupuncture and others don’t.

Acupuncture is generally safe and has few side effects when done by someone who’s experienced. It could be worth a try if you’re looking for new ways to control your pain – but always check with your doctor or healthcare provider before starting any type of new treatment. If you want to learn more, check out these resources:

MedlinePlus: Acupuncture

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Acupuncture for Pain



American Cancer Society. (2010). Acupuncture. Retrieved from….

Kong, J., Kaptchuk, T. J., Polich, G., Kirsch, I., Vangel, M., Zyloney, C., Gollub, R. (2009). Expectancy and treatment interactions: A dissociation between acupuncture analgesia and expectancy evoked placebo analgesia. Neuroimage, 45(3), 940-949.

Madsen, M. V., Gøtzche, P. C., & Hróbjartsson, A. (2009). Acupuncture treatment for pain: Systematic review of randomised clinical trials with acupuncture, placebo acupuncture, and no acupuncture groups. BMJ, 338, a3115.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2010). Acupuncture for pain. Retrieved from