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4 min read

Acupuncture

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Last reviewed: 20/11/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

In this article

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a type of complementary or alternative medicine that comes from traditional Chinese medicine.

It involves placing fine needles into specific areas of your body to help treat or prevent certain symptoms or conditions.

Traditional acupuncture is based on the belief that an energy, or ‘life force’, flows through the body in channels called meridians. This life force is known as Qi (pronounced ‘chee’), and some believe that you can become ill if Qi isn’t flowing freely through your body.

Acupuncturists (people who carry out acupuncture treatments) say that acupuncture can restore the flow of Qi and help make an ill person healthy again.

But Western medicine suggests that acupuncture works by triggering the release of natural painkillers, called endorphins.

How does acupuncture work?

When you have acupuncture, nerves under your skin and in your muscles are stimulated by needles.

This stimulation tells your body to make endorphins, which may help to relieve any pain you’re in.

But if you want longer-lasting pain relief, you may need a course of acupuncture sessions instead of a single treatment.

What is acupuncture used for?

While acupuncturists use acupuncture to treat many health conditions, their actions aren’t always based on strong scientific evidence.

But research has shown that acupuncture can be useful for treating:

And the National Institute for Health and Care and Excellence (NICE) only recommends acupuncture as a treatment option for chronic tension-type headaches and migraines.

What does acupuncture involve?

If you decide to have acupuncture, your first session will usually last 20 to 40 minutes. The acupuncturist will typically ask you about your health and look at different parts of your body. After this, they’ll insert the acupuncture needles.

You may need up to 10 separate sessions, but this can vary from person to person.

During the session, you'll usually be asked to sit or lie down. The acupuncturist may also ask you to take off some of your clothes so they can clearly where they want to treat.

The needles used are fine and are usually a few centimetres long. They should already be sterilised and then thrown away after use.

During a session, the needles are inserted into specific places on the body, called acupuncture points. They may go just under the skin or reach deeper into your muscles. Once they're in place, they may be left there for up to 30 minutes.

You may feel a tingling or a dull ache when the needles are put in, but it shouldn’t feel very painful. If it does, let your acupuncturist know straight away.

In some cases, your acupuncturist may turn the needles or stimulate them with a mild electric current (known as electroacupuncture).

Where can I try acupuncture?

Unlike doctors, dentists and other health professionals, acupuncturists aren’t always regulated. That’s why you should always check that anyone who gives you acupuncture is a qualified and regulated healthcare professional, like a doctor or nurse, or is properly trained and certified.

Speak with a doctor for advice on where to find fully trained acupuncturists in your country.

Is acupuncture safe?

When it's carried out by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is generally very safe.

Some people may get mild, short-lived side effects such as:

  • pain, bleeding or bruising where the needles puncture the skin
  • drowsiness
  • feeling sick
  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • worsening of pre-existing symptoms

If you have a bleeding disorder, like haemophilia, or are taking medicines that stop your blood from clotting normally (anticoagulants) talk to your doctor before you try acupuncture.

It’s also best to avoid acupuncture if you have a metal allergy or an infection in the area the needles may be placed into.

It's generally safe to have acupuncture when you're pregnant. However, let your acupuncturist know if you're pregnant because certain acupuncture points can't be used safely during pregnancy.

Key points:

  • acupuncture is a type of complementary or alternative medicine that comes from traditional Chinese medicine.
  • it involves stimulating nerves under the skin, which tells the body to release endorphins
  • a course of acupuncture sessions usually creates longer lasting pain relief than a single treatment
  • research shows acupuncture can be useful for treating lower back pain, knee osteoarthritis and migraines
  • always check that anyone who gives you acupuncture is properly trained and certified

References

  1. UpToDate [Internet]. Uptodate.com. 2020 [cited 15 November 2020]. Available here.
  2. Acupuncture [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 15 November 2020]. Available here.
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