Acupuncture and Acupressure for Atopic Dermatitis

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on March 12, 2024
5 min read

With chronic flare-ups of itchy, dry, irritated skin, many people with atopic dermatitis (eczema) are looking to acupuncture or acupressure for relief. But can these drug-free therapies usually help you find relief?

According to research, nearly 6% of people in the U.S. with skin conditions use some form of alternative medicine. Acupuncture for eczema is one of them, and it’s slowly getting more popular.

Acupuncture is a technique that’s more than 2,000 years old and is one of the most recognized therapies in traditional Chinese medicine. Those who practice the technique insert hair-thin, solid needles at points across your body called “acupoints.” This is done to stimulate the flow of energy called “qi” (pronounced chee) and improve health. In some cases, electric pulses are used to activate or trigger the points. Most people report mild pain during the treatment or soreness after a session.

The practice is based on the understanding that when these acupoints become weak, congested, or blocked, it can cause the body to produce illness-like symptoms such as chronic pain, skin problems, anxiety, and other issues. Needling is thought to stimulate the central nervous system, which then sends chemicals to the brain, spinal cord, and specific muscles. This, in turn, kick-starts the body’s natural healing ability.

In acupressure, instead of pricking your skin with needles, practitioners use their fingertips or small pellets to apply pressure and activate qi.

There’s no cure for eczema. Flare-ups can be managed by limiting the urge to scratch and itch with topical creams, ointments, and oral steroids. But long-term use has been found to have serious side effects and limitations. Plus, the treatments often fail to get to the root of the problem.

Because of this, there’s more interest in alternative drug-free therapies like acupuncture and acupressure.

Limited research and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests have found that activating specific points on your body using needles or pressure can lessen the constant urge to itch, called pruritus. This is the most common symptom that worsens eczema and disrupts quality of life.

While experts have studied the benefits of acupuncture and acupressure for neck and back pain, there’s limited research on its uses for chronic skin conditions like eczema. But the few studies that have been done show promise.

One small study by Northwestern University looked at 15 people with mild to moderate eczema. The researchers randomly split the group into two. One group received acupressure while the other was the control group.

The experimental group was asked to apply pressure on an acupoint called large intestine 11 (LI 11), located at the end of the elbow crease, for 4 weeks. This point is often used for conditions with red, itchy skin. The control group did nothing. Both groups were asked to continue their topical and oral treatments throughout the study.

After 4 weeks, during a follow-up exam, the people who practiced acupressure noticed a big drop in itching and skin improvements. They had no side effects. Meanwhile, the control group saw no changes.

Another small-scale German study looked at the value of acupressure on acupoint LI 11 compared to other acupoints on the body for people with eczema. It found that pressure on the LI 11 point for 4 weeks reduced allergy-induced eczema itching. But people who received pressure on placebo, or sham, acupoints showed no improvements.

A Korean study showed similar results in people who practiced acupuncture twice weekly for 4 weeks. Research also shows that acupuncture can reduce skin lesion sizes, frequency of flare-ups, and lower overall stress levels -- a common trigger for eczema.

But experts say there needs to be more large-scale research on the benefits and long-term effectiveness of acupuncture or acupressure for eczema.

There are several possible benefits to trying acupuncture or acupressure for mild to moderate eczema, such as:

  • The low cost of acupuncture/acupressure
  • Few to no side effects
  • Low risk of infection
  • Pain relief
  • Stress reduction
  • Increased energy
  • Better sleep
  • Allergy relief

Acupuncture and acupressure aren’t for everyone. While some people with eczema may find relief from acupuncture, it may worsen the symptoms or cause a flare-up for some. Some others may not notice any difference at all.

The therapy can also be harmful if you have certain medical conditions, take specific supplements, or are on certain medications. Ask your doctor about acupuncture before you give it a try.

You may be at risk for complications if:

You have a bleeding disorder. Bruising or bleeding from needle pricks can make it worse, especially if you’re taking a blood-thinning medication.

You have a pacemaker. Acupuncture that passes electric pulses through the needle can interfere with a pacemaker.

You’re pregnant. Certain acupoints can stimulate labor and cause premature delivery.

As acupuncture involves pricking skin with sharp needles, it’s important to take some precautions. Here’s what you should keep in mind before you give acupuncture for eczema a try:

Find a licensed and experienced practitioner. If you’re unsure how, ask your doctor for a trusted reference. Most non-doctor acupuncture practitioners need to pass an exam overseen by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Some doctors are also certified to practice acupuncture. Check the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture for a list of certified doctors near you.

Check if they have experience working with people with eczema. It’s important that your practitioner is familiar with your skin condition and severity, as needles may make it worse. Some people who practice the technique may not want to puncture affected skin with sharp needles, especially if you have a bad flare-up.

Ask about cost and insurance. Before you sign up for acupuncture, ask how many sessions you'll need, how much each one costs, and if they accept your medical insurance. Some health care plans cover it, while others don’t.