Is acupuncture appropriate for me?
3/15/2021 by Christina Chen, M.D.
Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine that originated more than 2,500 years ago. It involves inserting hair-thin needles into specific points along your body's energy meridians, called acupoints.
The philosophy behind traditional Chinese medicine focuses on maneuvers to balance life energy or Qi (pronounced "Chee"), which is considered vital to health and function, and often is described as blocked, depleted or in excess when disease-specific conditions and symptoms surface. This mechanism often is difficult to study, and exactly how it works is not fully understood.
The practice of acupuncture varies, depending on whether stimulation of the needles is manual or electrical, if ear acupuncture also is used, how long the needles are inserted, and the frequency of treatments.
How does acupuncture work to relieve pain?
According to the principles of the gate control theory of pain, inserting these needles stimulates pain fibers that close the pain gates in the central nervous system so the pain stimulus is not transmitted to the thalamus, which is located in the brain, and acts as the center for pain perception.
Biochemical evidence shows that acupuncture also increases the activity of the opioidergic system, releasing natural endorphins like serotonin, dopamine, neutrophins and nitric oxide, which may be effective in treating chronic pain and headache disorders.
What is acupuncture used to treat?
Acupuncture has been used for both acute and chronic health conditions. The goal is to promote and restore the balance of energy and improve overall health and well-being. The benefits of acupuncture can extend to a wide variety of conditions, including emotional disorders (anxiety, depression); neurological conditions, such as migraines or Parkinson's disease; or as a rehabilitation strategy for individuals who suffered a stroke.
It also can be beneficial for digestive issues, including nausea, vomiting, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and pain conditions due to injury or related to chronic inflammatory/degenerative disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Acupuncture has been used for many women's health issues, such as hot flashes, gynecologic disorders and infertility. In addition, it has been beneficial for reducing fatigue and addictive behaviors, such as smoking. In terms of insurance coverage, Medicare now covers acupuncture for the indication of back pain. Otherwise, call your insurance provider to find out if your plan covers acupuncture for your condition.
Are there risks involved?
Overall, the risks of acupuncture are very low if you are treated by a certified and experienced acupuncture practitioner. The needles are sterile and disposable to reduce infection risks. Possible side effects include minor issues, such as soreness or bruising at the needle sites. Injury may occur if the needles are pushed in too deeply (particularly in the lung), however this is extremely rare.
Before undergoing a treatment, let your practitioner know if you are pregnant, have a pacemaker or suffer from any bleeding disorders so your treatment may be designed to your specific needs in a safe manner.
Will it hurt?
Acupuncture treatments should not be a painful experience. Initially, you may feel a small prick when the needle is inserted, but then you should feel a sensation of pressure, soreness, a deep ache or warmth when the needle is stimulated. This means it has made contact with the QI, the energy source. Typical treatments last from 20-30 minutes.
What should I experience/expect after the first treatment?
Patients often report a general sense of relaxation and rejuvenation after an acupuncture treatment. The frequency of treatments and how long they last depends on the condition and individualized treatment plan that your practitioner will outline for you. Typically, chronic conditions may require more frequent and/or longer courses of treatment.
How do I find an acupuncture practitioner?
If you think acupuncture is an option for you, discuss it with your primary care provider and ask for a referral to one of Mayo Clinic's acupuncture specialists.
Christina Chen, M.D., is an internal medicine physician, trained in geriatric medicine and acupuncture, and practices in the Division of Community Internal Medicine at Mayo Family Clinic Northwest in Rochester, Minnesota. She performs acupuncture through the Department of Integrative Medicine.