Written by Claudia Fisher for Real Simple
More people than ever swear by acupuncture for everything from alleviating chronic pain to tempering stress. Here’s what the pros have to say about this alternative remedy’s most common benefits.
Even if you’re scared of needles, the thought of acupuncture has probably crossed your mind at least once during a bout of anxiety, a wellness kick, after an injury, or myriad other common conditions people have sought out the treatment to alleviate.
Acupuncture is the 2,000-year-old practice of inserting very thin needles through the skin to stimulate specific points of the body, called acupoints. According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice, there are hundreds of acupoints on the human body, each connected to a meridian, or energy pathway, that runs through our bodies. The idea is that by stimulating the chi—or energy—at these specific points, we can prompt our bodies to heal themselves. Two of the most multitasking areas for acupuncture are the Zusanli (below the knee) and in your ear because both spots are believed to treat a wide range of issues, including anxiety, chronic pain, headaches, sleep troubles, and digestive problems. The practice has evolved with scientific advancement, with research itself showing continuous improvements of acupuncture in China over the past 10 years.
Despite long being considered more of an outlier or complementary remedy to mainstream medicine, acupuncture has also attracted a fair amount of attention in the scientific community. Many studies now link the treatment to major health concerns, like diabetes and heart disease.
Earlier this summer, Medicare even began covering the traditional Chinese practice for patients participating in a certain pain study. While Medicare coverage is limited only to this use case right now, the goal is to determine whether acupuncture is effective enough to treat chronic lower back pain and, hopefully, find a reliable alternative to narcotic pain killers as a result. Some healthcare providers outside of this Medicare example already include acupuncture in coverage plans, so this new study is just more fuel to the already growing fire—and by “fire,” we mean body of research exploring whether or not acupuncture is a viable addition to certain treatment plans.
With Medicare and researchers delving more into the science of why acupuncture works and trendy treatment facilities opening in major cities, it looks like acupuncture’s popularity has nowhere to go but up. Acupuncture may have been associated with specific demographics and age groups before, but Google searches for “acupuncture near me” have grown dramatically over the past five years, suggesting people aren’t just curious about the treatment, but actually trying it. As the wellness industry continues to boom, it makes sense people both young and old would seek out clinics like this to complement their athleisure-leaning lifestyles. (Believe it or not, you can even get acupuncture for dogs and cats now—and if that doesn’t show a changed public perception, we don’t know what does.) So, what are all these people turning to acupuncture for?
“The most common conditions we see people for are stress and anxiety, women’s health (pregnancy, fertility, painful periods, and more), pain relief, and workout recovery,” says Shari Auth, a holistic health practitioner in New York and co-founder of WTHN, a New York City acupuncture studio.
If you’re still feeling a little unsure about what all the acupuncture hubbub is about, we did the research and spoke to the experts on acu (as they call it) to find out everything you need to know about this treatment and its associated benefits. Here are four ways the mind and body can benefit from acupuncture, according to pros.
Acupuncture for Anxiety and Stress
“Acupuncture lowers cortisol levels, ‘your stress hormone,’ and increases your serotonin and dopamine levels, your ‘happy hormones,’ to treat stress, anxiety and depression,” Auth says. “Acupuncture also balances our two nervous systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic, to promote a feeling of well-being.”
Researchers in a 2013 study conducted at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., observed four groups of rats over a 10-day period, looking for changes in stress as a result of acupuncture. The researchers measured the rats’ blood hormone levels associated with stress, mood, digestion, and energy, as well as the secretion levels of peptides associated with the fight or flight response after the rats received acupuncture.
“Our growing body of evidence points to acupuncture’s protective effect against the stress response,” Ladan Eshkevari, the study’s lead author, explained. The research still needs to be replicated in humans, but the results help elucidate the “how” behind “why” acupuncture may work to treat anxiety and stress.
Most studies reviewed by Psychology Today note a generally positive effect of acupuncture on anxiety and depressive moods, too, though more research is also needed here to confirm the results after study flaws were identified.
Acupuncture for Chronic Pain
As mentioned earlier, acupuncture is a promising area for the treatment of back pain, and many migraine sufferers also seek out the treatment. “Acupuncture is a natural anti-inflammatory that relieves pain from head to toe,” Auth explains. “Acupuncture can increase circulation to soothe tight muscles, decrease inflammation, and boost the production of your body’s natural pain-killers, known as endorphins and enkephalins.”
Research also supports the use of acupuncture for pain—specifically when the needle is inserted at the Zusanli, one of the most frequently used acupoints, below the knee. The Zusanli is attached to the stomach meridian, making it a common acupuncture spot for improving digestive issues as well.
Based on scientific studies, the NIH has stated that acupuncture “appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider.” After examining the body of research on the subject, the organization specified neck, lower back, headaches, and knee/osteoporosis pains can be alleviated by the TCM.
Acupuncture for Women’s Health
Issues related to pregnancy, fertility, and painful periods frequently motivate people to seek out acupuncture, and WTHN’s treatment menu, Auth explains, caters to “some of the key health conditions for acupuncture—pain relief, women’s health, digestion, and sleep.”
For period cramps, acupuncture has been shown, in small-scale studies, to reduce peak menstrual pain over time and with consistent treatment. According to the NIH, acupuncture also has the potential to significantly alleviate menopausal symptoms, like the severity of hot flashes, trouble sleeping, memory loss, anxiety, and other physical implications of hormonal changes.
While research hasn’t laid definitive evidence that acupuncture can increase a woman’s chances of getting pregnant, scientists have suggested the needling practice can help people cope with related problems during fertility treatments, like the emotional and psychological repercussions.
Acupuncture for Mental Clarity
“Acupuncture is a natural nootropic—it enhances cognition to give you greater focus,” Auth explains. “In fact, a recent science analysis showed that acupuncture is more effective in treating Alzheimer’s than conventional Western medicine.”
Acupuncture may enhance your focus directly, but another reason the treatment could make you feel more alert is that it’s often used to combat sleep-related issues, like insomnia and chronic fatigue. If your brain fog is caused by a lack of sleep or general drowsiness, acupuncture may boost your energy levels by treating the root of such problems and getting you a better night’s sleep.
Does acupuncture hurt?
A practitioner, or “healer,” at WTHN says that the needles she uses are so small, 30 can fit into one needle at the doctor’s office. While some spots can pinch a little as the needle goes in, acupuncture is not typically associated with a lot of pain when done correctly. In fact, Auth says, “it’s common for people to fall asleep on the table because acupuncture is so relaxing.”
What are the potential risks?
There aren’t many potential side effects of acupuncture, but Psychology Today identified some mild adverse reactions that can happen: bruising, nausea, and fatigue. In extremely rare cases, needles administered incorrectly or not sterilized have been reported to cause collapsed lungs, infections, punctured organs, and damage to the central nervous system, the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cautions. Similar to how you would vet a traditional doctor, you should check the credentials of an acupuncturist before you visit the clinic. Standards and requirements to practice acupuncture vary state-by-state, but most practitioners are required to have a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine to grant a license.
Acupuncture May Not Work If…
Research has suggested that acupuncture is ineffective at treating pain when mixed with caffeine, so you might have to forgo your daily coffee or matcha habit to reap the full benefits of the treatment. Auth does “not recommend acupuncture if you’re intoxicated or have a bleeding disorder.” To prepare as best you can for a successful acupuncture appointment, she recommends “eating something within six hours of your acupuncture session and drinking water after your session.”