Why Does Acupuncture Work?

Medically Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD on May 19, 2016
5 min read

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.

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.

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:

The National Institutes of Health calls the study "the most rigorous evidence to date that acupuncture may be helpful for chronic pain.”

Now, doctors are eager to find a drug-free approach to pain treatment in light of the dangers of opioids -- the class of powerful pain medications that includes codeine, morphine, OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. In March, the CDC called deaths from opioid overdoses "an epidemic."

Now, the CDC says doctors should turn to other treatments for chronic pain in cases that don't involve active cancer, palliative care, and end-of-life care.

"Now, you're like, 'OK, well, if we're not using opioids, what should we use?'" says Houman Danesh, MD, director of integrative pain management at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. That dilemma has many people giving acupuncture a second look when it comes to treating pain.

"If a lot of people recognize the value of acupuncture," Hui says, "it will be one of the components of addressing the prescription drug epidemic that we're talking about in our country right now."

Many who get treatment for cancer get acupuncture in addition to standard cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Acupuncture can help people who have nausea and vomiting during treatment.

"We have many patients come through with cancer," Hui says. He adds his department treats people in all phases of cancer treatment: from those who are newly diagnosed, to those dealing with the discomfort of cancer treatment, to those in the later stages.

Keep in mind, chemo and radiation weaken the body's immune system. So it's important for your acupuncturist to follow strict clean-needle procedures.

Some women who have extremely painful periods, a condition known as dysmenorrhea, try acupuncture. The science looks promising. Some research suggests acupuncture may help with pain from menstrual cramps. So far, though, that research is limited.

For women trying to get pregnant with expensive and time-consuming fertility treatments, acupuncture can make a big difference. It can improve the success rates of treatments such as in vitro fertilization. One study suggests acupuncture can help some women get pregnant by:

  • Alleviating anxiety and stress felt by those having fertility treatment
  • Promoting blood flow to the uterus

"Logic tells me more blood flow, more access to eggs," says Magarelli, who founded Reproductive Medicine & Fertility Centers in Colorado and New Mexico. "More eggs, more embryos, more choice, better chance for a baby."

Acupuncture is safe if done correctly. If you're thinking about getting it, remember these tips:

Acupuncture can be dangerous if you take certain medications, have a pacemaker, are at risk of infection, have chronic skin problems, or are pregnant. Talk to your doctor before you jump in.

Check your acupuncturist's credentials. Most states require a license to practice it. You can get a referral from your doctor.

Don't rely on a disease diagnosis you may get from an acupuncture practitioner unless they're also a licensed medical doctor. The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture can provide a referral list of doctors who practice it.

If you get a diagnosis from a doctor, ask them if acupuncture might help.

Check your insurance. Some plans cover it. Some don't.

Doctors learn more about acupuncture each year. But still, no one fully understands how acupuncture works. Does it boost your body's painkilling ability? Does it affect your blood flow? Can it help your body manage depression to promote further healing? Scientists continue to study -- and debate -- the issues.

But those who practice acupuncture say that's no reason to stop doing it. Danesh suggests we remember how aspirin became accepted as more than an over-the-counter painkiller.

"It took years and years for us to figure out the exact molecular mechanisms, but we were [still] giving aspirin," Danesh says. 'You have a headache? Take aspirin.' 'You have back pain? Take aspirin.' You have heart problems? ...' We accepted that aspirin was used.

“Acupuncture has good evidence [supporting it]. Just because we can't necessarily explain it down to the molecular level doesn't mean we need to abandon it."