Acupuncture is a practice that is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, using a variety of techniques which usually includes inserting thin needles through the surface of the skin. The acupuncture technique praised for its many health benefits involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are either manipulated by the hands or electrical stimulation. (1)
In addition to classical techniques of acupuncture, other techniques have been developed and become popular, including trigger point acupuncture, laser acupuncture, auricular acupuncture, and scalp acupuncture. (2)
Acupuncture was originally used as a preventive medical procedure to help keep people well for thousands of years in China and other Asian countries, but was approved by the U.S. FDA as a medical device in 1996. Acupuncture has been practiced for much longer than that in America, with research showing acupuncture has been used for about 200 years. (3)
How Acupuncture Can Boost Health
Acupuncture views the human body as a whole, with health resulting from harmony among body functions. According to TCM, there are twelve primary meridians, or channels, and eight additional meridians, each following a specific directional course throughout the body. An energy, referred to as chi, flows through each of these meridians, which encourages homeostatic regulation, or balance, of various bodily functions.
Along the meridian there are roughly 360 points that act as specific signs of disorder, as well as loci, or specific sites of location, for acupuncture treatment. When the normal flow of energy over a particular meridian is obstructed, pain, sickness, metabolic dysfunction, or other symptoms can manifest. The purpose of acupuncture therapy is to normalize the energy flow to relieve the symptoms by stimulating specific points on the meridians. (4)
- Pain management
- Activating the hypothalamus and pituitary glands
- Altering peptides, hormones, and neurotransmitters
- Regulating nervous system balance
- Regulating blood flow
- Reducing chronic inflammatory pain
- Reducing cytokines
9 Conditions Acupuncture Can Address
The World Health Organization has recognized acupuncture as being effective for at least two dozen conditions, while the US National Institutes of Health recommends acupuncture as a therapeutic intervention for complementary medicine. (7)
1. Pain Management
While all of the mechanisms of acupuncture are not fully understood, the use of acupuncture for pain management is well documented since it can cause changes in inflammatory cytokines. Research suggests that acupuncture achieves its pain-relieving effects by stimulating nerves in the muscle, which relay this signal to the spinal cord, midbrain, and hypothalamus-pituitary system, which triggers the release of neurotransmitters and hormones, like endorphins. (8)
Needle-free acupuncture has been found to be as an effective to conventional needle injection acupuncture, so if you’re afraid of needles, this is the treatment for you. A 2010 study found that patients treated by needle-free acupuncture for myofascial shoulder pain reported less anxiety, less discomfort, and fewer adverse events. (9)
2. Immune Support
Several studies have shown that acupuncture may boost immune function by enhancing natural killer cells and lymphocyte activity. One study found acupuncture to be beneficial for suppressing chemotherapy-induced vomiting. (10) Research suggests that acupuncture works through immunomodulation and is associated with significant changes in pro-inflammatory cytokines. (11)
3. Sleep and Mood Issues
Acupuncture can improve sleep quality and depression when compared with fluoxetine, a popular antidepressant drug. Those who received acupuncture reported significantly greater reductions in self-rating depression scale and Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index scores. (12,13)
Those who suffered with anxiety-related sleep disorders increased natural nighttime melatonin production and total sleep time through acupuncture treatment. Those who received acupuncture not only fell asleep faster, but also felt less aroused at night and were less stressed. (14)
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, is one of the most common endocrine disorders affecting roughly 10 percent of women of childbearing age. (15) Women who suffer from PCOS create follicles each month without producing an egg, which can disrupt ovulation, making PCOS the most common cause of infertility.
Other symptoms of PCOS include:
- Elevated androgen hormones
- Missed periods
- Insulin resistance
- Abnormal facial and body hair growth
A Swedish study conducted at the University of Gothenburg found that exercise and elctro-acupuncture treatments reduced symptoms of PCOS. This 16-week study looked at nine women with an average age of 30 years who underwent 14 acupuncture treatments, which were applied to the abdominal muscles and back of the knees—points associated with the ovaries. They found the treatments led to more regular menstrual cycles, reduced testosterone levels, and reduced waist circumference.
5. Stress Reduction
Acupuncture can reduce stress hormones. A study in the Journal of Endocrinology measured blood hormone levels secreted by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, also known as the HPA axis. The interaction between these organs regulate stress, digestion, mood, immune health, and emotions. The researchers also measured peptides secreted during the fight-or-flight response to acute stress. They found that electronic acupuncture blocks the chronic, stress-induced elevations of the HPA axis hormones and stress-associated peptides. (16)
6. Insulin Resistance
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that helps shuttle glucose into the cells. People who have insulin resistance have cells that don’t use insulin effectively, which can lead to cells having trouble absorbing glucose. This can cause a buildup of sugar in the blood, and can result in diabetes.
A review analyses of 234 English publications on the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for insulin resistance confirmed that acupuncture can correct various metabolic disorders such as hyperglycemia, overweight, hyperphagia, hyperlipidemia, inflammation, and altered activity of the sympathetic nervous system, all of which can contribute to the development of insulin resistance. (17)
7. Digestive Disorders
Roughly 70 million Americans suffer from digestive disorders, including:
- Bacterial overgrowth
Studies have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment in a wide range of gastrointestinal disorders including nausea and vomiting, IBS, constipation, peptic ulcer disease, and Crohn’s disease.
Acupuncture has also been shown to promote proper intestinal movement, improving both constipation and diarrhea. (18)
Acupuncture has been used to treat infertility extensively, including ovulatory dysfunction, embryo transfer in IVF, as well as male infertility. Acupuncture may improve ovulation by modulating the central and peripheral nervous systems. It can also benefit the neuroendocrine and endocrine systems, increase ovarian blood flow, and improve metabolism. Acupuncture has been shown to increase uterine blood flow and motility, as well as being able to reduce anxiety and stress, which are inevitable side effects of infertility. (19)
9. PMS Treatment
PMS symptoms, which are characterized by a set of hormonal changes, can include a host of symptoms like:
- Breast tenderness
- Abdominal cramps
- Weight gain
- Gastrointestinal disorders
It is estimated that PMS affects as many as 80 percent of women. The number of symptoms and the severity of symptoms can vary from woman to woman, as well as month to month. Many PMS symptoms are caused by an imbalance and fluctuation of hormone levels, such as elevated estrogen levels and low progesterone levels. Acupuncture can balance hormone health, as well as reduce pain associated symptoms, such as cramps, and mood disorders, such as anxiety. (20)
Overcoming the Fear Factor
While the idea of having needles poked into various parts of your body can feel daunting, overcoming your fear of needles can be easier than you think! Before you head in for your first session, make sure you’ve done your homework and feel comfortable with the practitioner you have chosen and their level of training and experience.
Bring a friend with you to your first treatment, to help keep your mind at ease while filling out paperwork and to help pass the time in the waiting room, which could lead to creating unnecessary thoughts and fears about such a wonderful and healing process. Be sure to ask beforehand how long your initial visit will be, so you can be prepared and allocate the appropriate amount of time for your appointment so you don’t feel rushed.
Finally, try your best to simply relax! Practice deep breathing, positive affirmations, and thinking about happy and calming thoughts.
How to Find a Qualified Acupuncturist
An estimated 16,000 non-MD acupuncturists practice in the US, which can make finding a practitioner slightly overwhelming. There are 10 acupuncture training programs certified by the American Board of Medical Acupuncture for Doctors. Each program requires at least 300 hours of training, 100 of which involves acupuncture-specific training. (21)
You can find a local and qualified acupuncturist in your area with acufinder.com. Be sure to check his or her credentials. Most states require licenses, certification, or registration to practice acupuncture, but this can vary from state to state. Most states also require a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for licensing.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their schooling, training, and experience, as well as their personal philosophy on health and healing. (22)
Be open to taking a certain amount of time to find the right acupuncturist for you. This might include giving the process not only several treatments, but also some trial and error to make sure you feel compatible with the acupuncturist you have chosen.