Ask the Expert: Acupuncture

Mary Beth O'Connell

Mary Beth O'Connell, PharmD
Professor of Pharmacy Practice
Wayne State University Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

Acupuncture is considered a type of complementary and alternative medicine.  The term “complementary and alternative medicine” refers to treatments not usually prescribed by healthcare professionals in the United States. Patients often use these therapies along with those prescribed by their primary healthcare provider. Older adults may use alternative treatments when their medical treatments are not working or they are experiencing unpleasant side effects from medications.

Q:  What is acupuncture?

A:  Acupuncture is a method of encouraging the body to promote natural healing and improve function. It originated in China more than 3,000 years ago and has spread worldwide.

It is a procedure where very fine needles are placed into the skin’s surface in up to 350 different body locations, called acupuncture points.  Locations include the ears, neck, back, arms, and legs. Typically, 5 to 20 needles are used and left in place for 10 to 30 minutes. (Acupressure is similar but uses pressure at these points instead of needles.)

Q:  How does acupuncture work?

A:  According to Chinese medical theory, the body’s life energy or Qi (pronounced "chee"), flows through the body on channels known as meridians, connecting all of our major organs. When energy is “stuck,” people develop pain and other symptoms of illness. The goal of acupuncture is to restore balance and make the body’s energy flow normally again. During therapy, the person might feel numbness, tingling, or heaviness along the meridian, a sign the therapy is working.

The western explanation for how acupuncture works is that the mild discomfort from the needles stimulates the release of endorphins and other pain-relieving chemicals from the brain. 

Q:  What type of training should and an acupuncturist have?

A:  When seeking an acupuncturist, you should ask where the practitioner trained, how long the training was, how long they have been in practice, and what experience they have in treating your specific ailment. If your state requires a license to practice, you should ask the practitioner if they are certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or the American Board of Medical Acupuncture.  

Q:  How safe is acupuncture?

A:  Acupuncture is very safe in the hands of a trained specialist. The specialist should discuss possible side effects with you before performing the treatment. Side effects are rare and similar to any type of injection therapy, such as tiredness, slight pain, infection, bleeding, and/or nerve damage.  Overall, older adults experience far fewer side effects with acupuncture than with most medications. However, if you are afraid of needles, you could feel lightheaded or faint. If you are taking blood thinners, you could develop bruising.   

Q:  What kinds of conditions can acupuncture treat?

A:  The most common uses are for various types of acute and chronic pain, as well as for nausea and vomiting (such as during chemotherapy or before surgery). Other conditions acupuncture has been used for include sinus problems, tonsillitis, the common cold, asthma, bronchitis, certain eye disorders, toothaches and other mouth problems, tennis elbow, sciatica, low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, hiccups, diarrhea, constipation and other gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and other neurologic conditions. For some of these conditions, there is data documenting that acupuncture is effective. However, evidence is minimal or lacking for other conditions.

Q:  Can acupuncture cure medical conditions?

A:  Acupuncture can relieve certain kinds of problems such as headaches. It can help relieve pain or discomfort brought on by recurring and long-term health conditions, such as low back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. Unfortunately, it cannot cure these ailments. 

Q:  How many acupuncture treatments will I need?

A:  It depends on the type of problem. For example, someone with arthritis and neck pain may need a treatment once a week for three to four weeks. A person who has had migraine headaches for many years may need treatments every week for a couple of months in order to prevent the headaches. Someone with a strained back may only need one treatment. 

Q:  How much does acupuncture cost?

A:  The cost of acupuncture varies and depends largely on the practitioner’s training and the location of the practice. Unfortunately, many insurance companies, including Medicare, do not pay for acupuncture. When deciding whether you can afford acupuncture, you should consider the costs of treating your condition with medications and other treatments and compare that with the cost of acupuncture. 

Q:  What if my healthcare provider does not believe in acupuncture?

A:  While some providers have a negative opinion, most providers are open to acupuncture, especially when a patient has a chronic condition that has not responded to the usual treatments. It is important for you to make sure your healthcare provider does not have a medical reason for advising against acupuncture. If the reason is not medical and you still wish to try it, then the decision is up to you.  


Last Updated September 2019

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