A major reason for seeking acupuncture treatment is the low incidence of adverse events compared to many drugs and medical procedures.1 Acupuncture uses finely gauged and sterilized stainless steel needles to improve blood circulation and to allow oxygen, blood, and lymph to better support the body’s healing process. It also stimulates recovery of injured nerves, muscles, and ligaments.
Depending on the individual, it is usually necessary to receive treatment once or twice a week. Chronic illnesses may require treatment for several weeks or longer. Acute problems generally respond faster to treatment. Many conditions can be alleviated by a combination of acupuncture and other therapies, such as manipulation and herbal medicine.
Acupuncture is based on the theory of Yin-Yang and the five elements. Health is perceived as a balance between the two opposing forces of Yin and Yang within the body, and imbalance causes illness and disruption in the flow of Qi (vital energy) along pathways in the body known as meridians.
Research on the mechanisms of acupuncture
Evidence supports that the central and peripheral nervous system is involved in the process of acupuncture taking effect, including neurotransmitters and neuromodulators such as endorphins, neurohumoral factors, and other chemical mediators.1
Clinical evidence for acupuncture
Various research have examined the effect of acupuncture on a variety of pain conditions. Most suggest that acupuncture is significantly better than both sham acupuncture and standard care for some but not all types of pain (neck and low back, knee osteoarthritis, headache, migraine). In some cases, the effect of acupuncture lasted up to 6-12 months.1
Low back pain (LBP)
The updated 2017 clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians recommends acupuncture as a nondrug therapy for LBP patients.2 A 2013 systematic review of acute LBP concluded that acupuncture can effectively improve symptoms,3 while a 2008 systematic review on LBP showed that combining acupuncture with usual care produced better results than usual care alone.4
A large-scale study on 14,000+ neck pain patients reported that acupuncture resulted in greater pain relief.5 Also, a retrospective cohort study reported that neck pain patients receiving acupuncture treatment were less likely to undergo cervical surgery.6
Acupuncture is widely used and researched for knee osteoarthritis, and it was reported to be more effective and have less adverse reactions than conventional medicine in a 2019 overview of systematic reviews.7
Adverse effects of acupuncture
The incidence of complications associated with acupuncture are significantly lower than with many medical treatments.8 According to a large-scale study with approximately 80,000 patients with musculoskeletal disorders conducted at Jaseng Hospital of Korean Medicine, frequency of adverse events associated with acupuncture treatment was low, and most cases were not serious.8
- Chen L, Michalsen A. Management of Chronic Pain Using Complementary and Integrative Medicine. BMJ. 2017;357:j1284.
- Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, McLean RM, Forciea MA. Noninvasive treatments for acute, subacute, and chronic low back pain: a clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians. Annals of internal medicine. 2017;166(7):514-530.
- Lee J-H, Choi T-Y, Lee MS, Lee H, Shin B-C, Lee H. Acupuncture for acute low back pain: a systematic review. Clinical journal of pain. 2013;29(2):172-185.
- Yuan J, Purepong N, Kerr DP, Park J, Bradbury I, McDonough S. Effectiveness of acupuncture for low back pain: a systematic review. Spine. 2008;33(23):E887-E900.
- Witt CM, Jena S, Brinkhaus B, Liecker B, Wegscheider K, Willich SN. Acupuncture for patients with chronic neck pain. Pain. 2006;125(1-2):98-106.
- Han D-G, Koh W, Shin J-S, et al. Cervical surgery rate in neck pain patients with and without acupuncture treatment: a retrospective cohort study. Acupuncture in Medicine. 2019;37(5):268-276.
- Li J, Li YX, Luo LJ, Ye J, Zhong DL, Xiao QW, Zheng H, Geng CM, Jin RJ, Liang FR. The effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for knee osteoarthritis: An overview of systematic reviews. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019;98(28):e16301.
- Kim M-R, Shin J-S, Lee J, et al. Safety of acupuncture and pharmacopuncture in 80,523 musculoskeletal disorder patients: a retrospective review of internal safety inspection and electronic medical records. Medicine. 2016;95(18).