Skip to content

    Pain Management Health Center

    Font Size
    A
    A
    A

    Why Does Acupuncture Work?

    By Sid Lipsey
    WebMD Feature
    Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD

    For millions of people who live with pain, acupuncture is no longer an exotic curiosity. It's now widely accepted among the medical community. And it's pretty popular with patients as well. A recent survey found almost 3.5 million Americans said they'd had acupuncture in the previous year.

    "In our clinic, we have been in existence for like 22 years," says Ka-Kit Hui, MD, founder and director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. "We have a 4- or 5-month wait for new patients."
    Acupuncture -- in which needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments are applied to certain places on the skin -- has come a long way since 1971. That's when the 2,000-year-old Chinese healing art first caught on in the United States, thanks to a story in The New York Times. The piece was written by a reporter who had visited China and wrote about how doctors healed his pain from back surgery using needles.

    Recommended Related to Pain Management

    Ankle Sprain

    Although often associated with women in high-heeled shoes, ankle sprains are a common ailment for all sorts of athletes. About 25,000 people get them every day. And what is an ankle sprain, exactly? It’s an injury to one of the ligaments in your ankle. Ligaments are tough bands of tissue that hold your bones together. Although ligaments are flexible, all it takes is a sudden twist for them to stretch too far or snap entirely. Ankle sprains are graded according to severity, with Grade I indicating...

    Read the Ankle Sprain article > >

    In 1996, the FDA gave acupuncture its first U.S. seal of approval, when it classified acupuncture needles as medical devices. In the 20 years since, study after study indicates that, yes, acupuncture can work.

    "There's nothing magical about acupuncture," Hui says. "Many of these [alternative] techniques, including acupuncture, they all work by activating the body's own self-healing [mechanism]."

    And that's the main goal of acupuncture: self-healing.

    "Our bodies can do it," says Paul Magarelli, MD, a clinical professor at California's Yo San University. "We are not animals who are dependent on drugs."

    If you're deciding if acupuncture is right for you, it's best to be open to its benefits and skeptical of claims it's a magical cure-all.

    "It should be part of a comprehensive approach to solve problems," Hui says.

    Chronic Pain

    Acupuncture has long been recognized as an effective treatment for chronic pain. In 2012, a study found acupuncture was better than no acupuncture or simulated acupuncture for the treatment of four chronic pain conditions:

    • Back and neck pain
    • Osteoarthritis (your doctor may call it “degenerative joint disease” or “wear and tear arthritis)
    • Chronic headache
    • Shoulder pain
    1 | 2 | 3

    Today on WebMD

    pain in brain and nerves
    Top causes and how to find relief.
    knee exercise
    8 exercises for less knee pain.
     
    acupuncture needles in woman's back
    How it helps arthritis, migraines, and dental pain.
    chronic pain
    Get personalized tips to reduce discomfort.
     
    illustration of nerves in hand
    Slideshow
    lumbar spine
    Slideshow
     
    Woman opening window
    Slideshow
    Man holding handful of pills
    Video
     
    Woman shopping for vegetables
    Slideshow
    Sore feet with high heel shoes
    Slideshow
     
    acupuncture needles in woman's back
    Slideshow
    man with a migraine
    Slideshow