frequently asked questions about acupuncture

Updated June 22, 2021

Acupuncture may be intimidating for some, due to the many thread-like needles used during a session. However, this ancient form of Eastern medicine has been used as a wellness complement to Western medicine for many years. Those who are open to it have found relief from many medical conditions.

The first written evidence of acupuncture was recorded in the Han Dynasty, the first dynasty of China, around 200 B.C. and first appeared in Western text in the late 1800s. But this ancient procedure is still proving effective and bringing healing in modern times.

Betty Liu, MD, physical medicine and rehabilitation physician and certified medical acupuncturist, uses acupuncture and a holistic medicine philosophy to address treatment approaches associated with pain at the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). Dr. Liu weighs in on six frequently asked questions about acupuncture.

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Your Acupuncture Questions Answered

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an eastern form of medicine. The insertion of the needles produces natural chemicals in the body called endorphins, which help decrease your perception of pain.

“The overall goal of acupuncture is to reduce pain while increasing blood flow and stimulating muscles and nerves throughout the body,” says Dr. Liu.

What’s the purpose of acupuncture?

The philosophy behind acupuncture is achieving balance throughout your body. Practitioners believe that if you’re in pain, your body is not in balance. In treating the pain, acupuncturists try to find the specific acupuncture point that will address your physical problem, thereby putting your body back in balance.

There are acupuncture points on the body, called Acupuncture Meridian Subsystems, that affect specific areas of the body’s surface, muscles, and organs. The most common area people are familiar with is the multiple areas of the foot targeted to treat specific organs. These are a few of the meridians, each with its own focus:

  • Tendinomuscular – shield to the surface of the body.
  • Principal – on the surface of the body.
  • Shu (Yang) – Mu (Yin) – direct access to specific organs.
  • Curious – supports the Principal Meridians.

Do the needles hurt?

The most common concern about acupuncture is the fear of the needles. However, the needles used are very thin compared to needles used for injections of medicine. You’ll feel a little pressure as the needle pierces just below the skin’s surface. Once the needle is in the muscle, there should be no pain.

The hair-like needles are typically placed directly into the area being targeted, like along the wrist and thumb for carpal tunnel syndrome, but there are some areas of the body that are said to affect others. For example, the bottom of the foot is said to contain multiple areas that each affect a different organ or muscle system. Just one of these is acupuncture to the arch of the foot, which targets the kidneys.

Acupuncture originated in Eastern medicine but has been incorporated to complement Western medicine with many similar benefits including increased blood flow to the targeted area, relief of pain and inflammation, and overall wellness.

What conditions are treated using acupuncture?

Both acute and chronic conditions can be treated with acupuncture. Because everyone responds differently, the number of treatment sessions can vary for each individual.

“We are able to use acupuncture for a variety of conditions – everything from acute and chronic pain, to muscle spasms and spasticity, nausea from chemotherapy or pregnancy, or even tendonitis,” says Dr. Liu.

Acupuncture is also used in treating osteoarthritis and other musculoskeletal pain and disorders, including:

  • Fibromyalgia.
  • Headaches.
  • Neurogenic bladder.
  • Peripheral neuropathy.
  • Plantar fasciitis.
  • Post-concussion syndrome.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Tennis elbow.
  • Whiplash injuries.

How many sessions are needed for acupuncture to be effective?

Typically, the longer the patient has the condition, the longer the course of treatment before they experience substantial or lasting results. Acupuncture can be done as often as five times a week, or as little as once a month. Following an acupuncture appointment, it is important to rest and drink lots of water to allow your body to maximize the relief provided by acupuncture.

If you see a physician for your acupuncture treatment, like in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, that physician has many other nonoperative treatments at their disposal as well. So, if acupuncture isn’t right for you, they’ll try something better suited to your needs. Physicians are also able to prescribe medicines to accompany your treatment when appropriate.

How do I get started with acupuncture?

Start by asking your doctor if acupuncture may be right for you, your specific condition, and your goals for returning to activities. Acupuncture is an effective way to treat many types of pain and has few side effects. If pain medicines have been a problem for you, acupuncture may be a viable option.

Acupuncture at UPMC

At UPMC, physicians trained in acupuncture have access to a range of specialists to treat patients holistically and provide a seamless continuum of care. So, whether acupuncture is right for your condition or not, they have the team of experts to find the best solution tailored to you.

Dr. Liu is associate professor of PM&R at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, co-director of PM&R Medical Student Education, and the department wellness champion. She advocates for accessible health care for women, and she was granted a FISA Foundation grant in the past for addressing this particular issue. It is her belief that knowledge and motivation are the primary factors influencing positive outcomes for recovery and improvement of health.

Her clinical focus is on acupuncture, neck and low back pain, lifestyle medicine, musculoskeletal medicine, medical education, women’s health, and mobility needs for people with disabilities.

To make an appointment with a certified medical acupuncturist from the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, please call 412-692-4400. To learn more about acupuncture treatment at UPMC, visit our website.

About Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

At the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, we strive to improve your function after injury or illness. Through inpatient therapy at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and outpatient therapy at clinics throughout western Pennsylvania, we help patients recover from functional, pain-related, and neurological conditions. The Department of PM&R is a leader in research, therapy, and advanced rehabilitation technology – not only dedicated to providing you with exceptional clinical care, but focused on developing new technologies and treatments to help you achieve mobility and maintain independence.