The ancient art of acupuncture has been used in Asia for centuries to treat many diseases and relieve pain.
Now it is being used in the United States and other Western countries to relieve everything from low back pain, neurological pain (such as postherpetic neuralgia), headaches, fibromyalgia, and menstrual cramps - and much more.
Traditional Chinese acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely fine needles into the skin at specific acupuncture points. This can relieve pain by releasing endorphins, natural pain-killing chemicals in the body, and affecting the part of the brain that regulates serotonin, a brain chemical involved with mood.
In Chinese acupuncture, the acupuncturist may twist the needles slightly or apply heat or electrical stimulation to enhance the effects. They may also burn a therapeutic herb near the skin; this is called moxibustion.
Acupuncture in Japan and Korea
A Japanese form of acupuncture involves inserting the needle less deeply than in Chinese acupuncture, and the needles are usually not manipulated.
Korean acupuncture focuses on applying needles to points on just the hands and feet. The acupuncturist typically inserts four to 10 needles and leaves them in place for 10 to 30 minutes while the patient rests. A typical treatment includes six to 12 sessions over a three-month period.
(Acupressure, a technique similar to acupuncture, does not use needles. Instead, the practitioner uses their hands to apply deep pressure to acupressure points.)
Is it safe?
Acupuncture is generally quite safe, and the rate of complications appears to be quite low. A review of complications related to acupuncture-reported in medical journals found that the most serious problem was accidentally inserting a needle into the pleural space between the lungs and the chest wall (but this is rare).
Single-use needles, with sealed needle packages, has virtually eliminated the risk of blood-borne infections, such as hepatitis B or HIV.
Does acupuncture really help ease pain?
The evidence is mixed, with some studies showing that acupuncture relieves pain and others showing that it performs no better than "sham" acupuncture (procedures designed to mimic acupuncture but not have any real effect, like a placebo, used in drug efficacy studies). One issue with analyzing these results is that most studies of acupuncture efficacy have been on small groups. The design of "fake" acupuncture techniques has also varied widely, further complicating any comparison. It is also possible that acupuncture works for some people and not others.
If you decide to try acupuncture, look for an experienced acupuncture practitioner.