Acupuncture, the traditional Chinese technique of inserting thin needles into the body at specific spots called acupoints, is becoming an increasingly popular pain treatment. It is based on the belief that blocked qi, or energy, causes pain, and that stimulating some of our more than 300 acupoints, each believed to affect a specific body part or organ, can unblock energy and relieve pain.
Between 2002 and 2012 the number of people receiving acupuncture increased by 36 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and they typically visited a licensed practitioner (not a medical doctor) to perform the procedure. Proponents claim it can ease back pain, neck pain, and even treat ills such as allergies and hot flashes. But does it work? And is it safe?
A number of people who use acupuncture for chronic pain do report benefits. For example, an analysis of 29 studies with a total of 17,922 participants with back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and shoulder pain found that people with those conditions experienced significantly more relief with acupuncture than those who had no treatment. People also reported less pain after real acupuncture than they did after fake acupuncture (for example, with needles placed in spots that were not acupoints), but the differences were small.
One possible reason for the benefits of acupuncture: Studies show that it causes us to release feel-good hormones, called endorphins, that suppress pain. “Acupuncture, real and sham, also might make you feel better simply because you feel cared for or because you expect it to work—the placebo effect,” says Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser, Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.
For back and neck pain, acupuncture is safe as long as sterile needles, such as single-use disposables, are used by a trained practitioner. But skip it for conditions other than pain; there’s no conclusive evidence that it will help.
If you do decide to try acupuncture, make sure that your practitioner has the appropriate credentials. Most states require at least 1,600 hours of training and that acupuncturists are certified by, or pass an exam from, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. And note that acupuncture treatments are covered by some insurance policies, but they are not covered by Medicare.
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