The Science Behind Acupuncture

By Truong Le - August 17, 2021
Woman getting acupuncture in her face.

A Quick Breakdown: The Science Behind Acupuncture 

Acupuncture treatments use thin needles to activate areas on the body that are connected to pain and discomfort. While this treatment modality is gaining in popularity in modern healthcare, it is not a new method. In fact, acupuncture has been around for centuries. If you are considering embracing acupuncture either for yourself or for your patients, a closer look at the science behind acupuncture could help you make an informed decision.

Acupuncture—A Brief History 

Acupuncture has its origins in traditional Chinese medicine, which teaches that the body has a flow of energy called Qi, pronounced “chee.” By the manipulation of over 2,000 acupuncture points (called meridians), practitioners can help release Qi and improve its flow through the body. Acupuncture teaches that disruption or blockages of this energy flow can cause disease and ailments. Activating the acupuncture points improves this flow and has a positive impact on overall health.

Acupuncture has been in practice since at least 100 BC, yet this ancient healing method continues to have a strong following today. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to treat a wide range of conditions. In Western medicine, it is used primarily to treat chronic pain and mental health needs.

The Philosophy of Acupuncture 

What is the philosophy behind modern acupuncture therapy, and does it have a scientific base? Some modern acupuncturists still attribute treatment success to the concept of Qi and meridians. Others subscribe to a belief that acupuncture points are groupings of nerves, muscles, and connective tissue that physically and naturally respond to stimulation. By stimulating these areas using tiny needles, the acupuncturist is able to trigger increased blood flow to the area. This then stimulates the hormones, neurotransmitters and immune system responses that activate the body’s pain-relieving system.

Common Uses of Acupuncture Therapy 

Medical conditions treated with acupuncture vary based on the practitioner. Some acupuncturists focus entirely on pain and muscular-skeletal conditions. Other practitioners use acupuncture to treat a wide range of ailments and illnesses. Common acupuncture therapies include:

  • Chronic pain—Triggering acupuncture points  to provide relief for chronic pain, including nerve pain
  • Stress relief—Acupuncture can reduce stress levels and restore a feeling of calm
  • Mental health—Depression and anxiety can sometimes be relieved with acupuncture treatment
  • Headaches—Headaches, including migraines, may lessen with acupuncture treatment
  • Addiction—Acupuncture, when used in conjunction with substance abuse treatment, can help individuals resist the pull of addictive substances and reduce the effects of withdrawal

While these are the more common uses, the World Health Organization indicates acupuncture can also help with:

  • Blood pressure
  • Gastric conditions
  • Allergies
  • Stroke risk reduction
  • Induction of labor
  • Morning sickness
  • Menstrual discomfort
  • Chemotherapy side effects

Scientific Evidence for Acupuncture 

Many people will attest to the healing power and pain-relieving benefits of acupuncture, but is there science behind the treatment that speaks to its efficacy?

Unfortunately, scientific studies into acupuncture are difficult to perform. The challenge of setting up a true placebo group—one where the control group believes the acupuncture treatment is not, in fact, the actual therapy—makes testing the treatment methodology difficult.

Even so, according to the National Institutes of Health, chronic pain responds well to acupuncture treatment. A 2012 study found that acupuncture was more effective than a placebo for treating chronic back pain, headaches, neck pain and knee pain. In 2009, a study found that adding acupuncture to basic medical care for chronic migraine treatment reduced the frequency of migraines.

A 2017 study of 249 migraine patients split them into three groups: those who received acupuncture treatment, those who received a placebo, and those who were placed on a waiting list for treatment. The study found that acupuncture patients received the most relief, but the differences were small, causing researchers to wonder if the cost of the treatment might outweigh the benefits derived.

In yet another study, published by Berkeley, examined the efficacy of acupuncture in patients with PTSD. Symptoms for those who received the treatments were reduced by nearly 50%. Those who received no treatment saw no relief. Interestingly, patients who received cognitive behavioral therapy also saw a reduction in PTSD symptoms, but not at as high of a level as those receiving acupuncture treatment.

To date, nearly 4,000 scientific studies have been performed on acupuncture treatment. These studies have found that acupuncture can treat some symptoms and relieve pain and mental health conditions, especially when used in conjunction with traditional medicine.

Risks of Acupuncture 

One of the benefits of acupuncture is the fact that it carries minimal risk when performed by a credentialed acupuncturist. These practitioners only use sanitary, one-time-use needles to minimize risk of infection. In addition, these needles should not puncture below the first few layers of skin, so there is little risk of blood loss or pain.

The main issue involving treatment is the fact that many insurance providers simply don’t cover it, and so patients shoulder the financial cost and pay out-of-pocket.

It is also possible for acupuncture needles to break the skin and cause minor bleeding or bruising. However, a skilled and licensed acupuncturist will greatly reduce this risk.

Limitations and Misconceptions about Acupuncture 

Though acupuncture therapy is growing as an option to treat chronic pain and mental health conditions, many people—as well as medical physicians—have misconceptions about the treatment.

Number one, they think that acupuncture could be painful. The idea of using needles as a treatment method seems counterintuitive. Most patients, however, do not feel pain from the needles. (Acupuncture needles are incredibly thin.) In fact, many patients report a feeling of relaxation during treatment. Some even fall asleep during a session.

Another misconception is that it is somehow mystical in nature. In fact, scientific evidence shows acupuncture works—though the mechanism by which it works is still being studied. Whether it works by triggering the nervous system, circulatory system or neurochemical responses, it does have a positive effect on the patient.

Finally, many mistakenly assume that acupuncturists do not have any medical or clinical training. This, too, is not true. In order to be a licensed acupuncturist in the United States, a practitioner must attend at least three years of a graduate school program that covers acupuncture, ethics, Western medicine and nutrition. Students must also have clinical experience with real patients under the skill of a licensed practitioner.

There are some limitations to acupuncture treatment. This treatment helps relieve symptoms, but if an underlying health condition is causing the pain or other symptoms, additional treatments may be necessary. However, when used in conjunction with medical treatment for the underlying cause, acupuncture can be highly effective at treating a wide range of conditions.

Is There a Science Behind Acupuncture? 

Does science back the practice of acupuncture? More study is needed to determine how acupuncture works and to quantify its effectiveness, but there is a growing body of scientific evidence that proves it does work. Patients of acupuncture receive relief from symptoms.

According to the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture is a safe treatment method with very few potential side effects as long as the patient sees a licensed practitioner who uses safe practices. It is a reasonable option for people who suffer from chronic pain and headaches who wish to pursue natural, non-medicated treatment options. It can also have a positive impact on mental health conditions.

Start Your Acupuncture Treatment Training Today 

If the science behind acupuncture is interesting to you, consider a career as an acupuncturist. Pacific College of Health and Science has a robust training program to help you earn a degree in acupuncture. With a hands-on, holistic approach, Pacific College of Health and Science gives students the tools they need to effectively treat patients using these natural treatment methods. If you are interested in learning more about the San Diego acupuncture program, New York acupuncture program, or Chicago acupuncture program offered at Pacific College of Health and Science, visit admissions or contact us today.

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