Project Description

Can Acupuncture Relieve Pain?

Many people swear that acupuncture helps relieve their pain. Our Healthy Skeptic examines the evidence to see whether they have a point.


It seems counterintuitive that sticking needles into your skin can reduce pain, but many people swear that it does. And research suggests they may have a point.

Acupuncture, which has been practiced for thousands of years, involves inserting very thin needles at specific points in the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, this restores the flow of energy, known as QI, along pathways called meridians. The concepts of QI and meridians don’t exist in western medicine, but one theory is that acupuncture may work by triggering the release of brain chemicals that reduce the sensation of pain.

A review of 29 studies involving nearly 18,000 patients found that acupuncture appears to be modestly effective against chronic headaches, arthritis pain, and pain in the neck, shoulders and lower back. Ather research shows it may also help reduce pain after surgery.

But studying acupuncture is tricky, raising questions about the findings. In some cases, studies have included a control group of people getting fake acupuncture, which may also result in less pain. The studies leave open the possibility that people feel better after acupuncture because of the so-called placebo effect, the belief that it’s helping them.

What’s more, techniques such as the placement and number of needles can vary from one acupuncturist to another. Some use needles that deliver a mild electrical current. That’s why, if you want to try acupuncture, it’s a good idea to talk to several practitioners. Ask about their methods, training, and experience treating your type of pain.

Also, find out how many sessions you’ll need and whether insurance will cover the cost.

When done properly, acupuncture is relatively safe, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for a proper diagnosis by a medical professional. If conventional treatments don’t help, then acupuncture may be worth a try to help stick it to your pain.