Learn more about acupuncture

How Does Acupuncture Work? Explaining an Ancient Medicine

Treating chronic pain is challenging — every person’s pain is unique, so everyone responds differently to treatments. And many health conditions can lead to chronic pain, so there’s sometimes no official baseline.

To combat this, pain medicine doctors, like the pain experts at UPMC, often approach pain with a variety of treatments to help people feel better. And one of those treatments is acupuncture.

Contact the UPMC Pain Medicine program for more information.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that can be effective in reducing pain. A technique created thousands of years ago, acupuncture began in China and is still a key part of Chinese medicine. The ancient belief in China, which continues today, was that your body has “chi,” a form of energy, flowing through it. If the chi becomes blocked, your body is unbalanced, causing pain or other problems.

When an acupuncturist places needles at strategic points on your body, it’s believed your body’s balance is restored, thus reducing pain. Acupuncture needles are extremely thin (significantly thinner than the needle a doctor would use to give a shot or injection). While they do vary in diameter, most acupuncture needles are so thin that people often don’t feel anything when they’re inserted into their skin.

Acupuncture is approved by the Federal Drug Administration and has been studied extensively. Western researchers have found that acupuncture stimulates nerves, muscles, and other systems in the body. Your body’s natural painkillers are released and blood flow is stimulated, helping to reduce your pain.

Why Is Acupuncture Used?

Zongfu Chen, MD, a pain specialist in UPMC’s Pain Medicine program, uses acupuncture as one of several treatments to help relieve his patients’ pain. According to Dr. Chen, acupuncture is effective for a variety of painful conditions. Those most commonly treated with acupuncture include:

For conditions such as neuropathy, acupuncture is a temporary form of relief. You may need to continue receiving acupuncture treatments to manage your pain.

Does Acupuncture Work?

From Dr. Chen’s experience, pain shouldn’t be approached using only one treatment method. Acupuncture doesn’t stand alone in reducing pain, but Dr. Chen says it can be a very effective part of a group of treatments. He combines medicines, injections, physical therapy, and relaxation techniques to help people feel less pain.

Dr. Chen says there are two key points to remember about acupuncture for pain:

  1. Acupuncture shouldn’t be a last resort. It should be used early in your treatment journey to reduce pain and keep it from getting worse. Dr. Chen sees people who have tried nearly everything else to help their pain and nothing has worked, so acupuncture is a last-ditch effort. In these cases, it’s often too late for acupuncture to help.
  2. It takes time and patience for the results of acupuncture to be felt. Most people need six to eight sessions to experience significant pain reduction, according to Dr. Chen.

Side Effects of Acupuncture

The side effects of acupuncture are minimal and rare. Dr. Chen says the most common side effect he sees is the vasovagal syncope response, which is due to a person’s fear of needles.

Some people begin sweating and get lightheaded, which can lead to fainting. Because the acupuncture points are strategically chosen and the needles are extremely thin, most people feel no pain during acupuncture. Infection and bleeding are possible but extremely rare, according to Dr. Chen.

Dr. Chen emphasizes that the effectiveness of the treatment doesn’t depend on the number of needles used. If you’re considering or currently receiving acupuncture, you should remember that every acupuncturist has a different style and there are a variety of effective ways to administer it. Having a skilled doctor you trust administer the treatment is the most important element on your pain management journey.