Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners insert fine needles into the skin to treat health problems. The needles may be manipulated manually or stimulated with small electrical currents (electroacupuncture). Acupuncture has been in use in some form for at least 2,500 years. It originated from traditional Chinese medicine but has gained popularity worldwide since the 1970s.
How widely is acupuncture used?
According to the World Health Organization, acupuncture is used in 103 of 129 countries that reported data.
In the United States, data from the National Health Interview Survey showed a 50 percent increase in the number of acupuncture users between 2002 and 2012. In 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 6.4 percent of U.S. adults reported they had used acupuncture, and 1.7 percent reported they had used it in the past 12 months.
What is acupuncture used for?
National survey data indicate that in the United States, acupuncture is most commonly used for pain, such as back, joint, or neck pain.
How does acupuncture work scientifically?
How acupuncture works is not fully understood. However, there’s evidence that acupuncture may have effects on the nervous system, effects on other body tissues, and nonspecific (placebo) effects.
Studies in animals and people, including studies that used imaging methods to see what’s happening in the brain, have shown that acupuncture may affect nervous system function.
Acupuncture may have direct effects on the tissues where the needles are inserted. This type of effect has been seen in connective tissue.
Acupuncture has nonspecific effects (effects due to incidental aspects of a treatment rather than its main mechanism of action). Nonspecific effects may be due to the patient’s belief in the treatment, the relationship between the practitioner and the patient, or other factors not directly caused by the insertion of needles. In many studies, the benefit of acupuncture has been greater when it was compared with no treatment than when it was compared with sham (simulated or fake) acupuncture procedures, such as the use of a device that pokes the skin but does not penetrate it. These findings suggest that nonspecific effects contribute to the beneficial effect of acupuncture on pain or other symptoms.
In recent research, a nonspecific effect was demonstrated in a unique way: Patients who had experienced pain relief during a previous acupuncture session were shown a video of that session and asked to imagine the treatment happening again. This video-guided imagery technique had a significant pain-relieving effect.
What does research show about the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain?
Research has shown that acupuncture may be helpful for several pain conditions, including back or neck pain, knee pain associated with osteoarthritis, and postoperative pain. It may also help relieve joint pain associated with the use of aromatase inhibitors, which are drugs used in people with breast cancer.
An analysis of data from 20 studies (6,376 participants) of people with painful conditions (back pain, osteoarthritis, neck pain, or headaches) showed that the beneficial effects of acupuncture continued for a year after the end of treatment for all conditions except neck pain.