More than 3 million Americans receive acupuncture each year, and its use is increasing.1 While there are a variety of acupuncture techniques, those typically used in the U.S. incorporate traditions from China, Japan and Korea and involve penetrating your skin with a thin needle at certain points on your body.
The needle is then stimulated by hand or electrically.2 Acupuncture has been in use for thousands of years around the globe, and it has withstood the test of time because it works to safely relieve many common health complaints.
How it works has remained largely a mystery, but last year researchers revealed a biochemical reaction that may be responsible for some of acupuncture’s beneficial effects.
Scientists Reveal How Acupuncture Reduces Inflammation and Pain
An animal study looking into the effects of acupuncture on muscle inflammation revealed that manual acupuncture downregulates (or turns off) pro-inflammatory cells known as M1 macrophages. At the same time, it upregulates (or activates) anti-inflammatory M2 macrophages, thereby reducing pain and swelling.3
This is an effective strategy because M2 macrophages are a source of anti-inflammatory interleukin-10 (IL-10), a cytokine involved in immune response. It’s thought that upregulating M2 macrophages leads to an increase in IL-10, which subsequently helps relieve pain and inflammation. The Epoch Times reported:4
“Acupuncture literally flips a switch wherein initial inflammatory responses are reduced and the secondary healing responses are promoted.
M1 macrophage downregulation and M2 macrophage upregulation triggered by acupuncture was positively associated with reductions in muscle pain and inflammation.”
It’s likely that acupuncture works via a variety of mechanisms. In 2010, for instance, it was found that acupuncture activates pain-suppressing receptors and increased the concentration of the neurotransmitter adenosine in local tissues.5
Adenosine slows down your brain's activity and induces sleepiness. According to a Nature Neuroscience press release:6
“ … [T]he authors propose a model whereby the minor tissue injury caused by rotated needles triggers adenosine release, which, if close enough to pain-transmitting nerves, can lead to the suppression of local pain.”
Acupuncture Influences Your Body on Multiple Levels
With documented use dating back more than 2,500 years, acupuncture is based on the premise that there are more than 2,000 acupuncture points in the human body, which are connected by bioenergetic pathways known as meridians.
According to traditional medicine, it is through these pathways that Qi, or energy, flows, and when the pathway is blocked the disruptions can lead to imbalances and chronic disease.
Acupuncture is proven to impact a number of chronic health conditions, and it may work, in part, by stimulating your central nervous system to release natural chemicals that alter bodily systems, pain and other biological processes. Evidence suggests that acupuncture may also work by:7
Stimulating the conduction of electromagnetic signals, which may release immune system cells or pain-killing chemicals
Activation of your body’s natural opioid system, which may help reduce pain or induce sleep
Stimulation of your hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which impact numerous body systems
Change in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, which may positively influence brain chemistry
Acupuncture May Relieve Pain From Knee Osteoarthritis
Acupuncture is often used for the treatment of chronic pain, and it may be particularly useful for pain from knee osteoarthritis.
In a study by researchers from the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture received five times a week for four weeks significantly reduced pain and improved stiffness in patients with knee osteoarthritis.8
In this study, the improvements increased even more when acupuncture was combined with Chinese massage called Tui Na. Other research has also shown benefits, including one of the longest and largest studies on the topic to date.
More than 550 patients diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis took part in the 26-week trial. The participants were randomly assigned to receive one of three treatments: acupuncture, sham acupuncture, or self-help strategies recommended by the Arthritis Foundation (the latter served as a control group).
Significant differences in response were seen by week eight and 14, and at the end of the trial, the group receiving real acupuncture had a 40 percent decrease in pain and a nearly 40 percent improvement in function compared to baseline assessments — a 33 percent difference in improvement over the sham group.9
Acupuncture for Relief of High Blood Pressure
There is some evidence that acupuncture may help lower high blood pressure while also relieving associated anxiety, headaches, dizziness, palpitations and tinnitus.
It’s known that high blood pressure leads to elevated concentrations of inflammation-causing tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) and TNF-α-stimulated endothelin (ET), peptides involved in constricting blood vessels and raising blood pressure.10,11
It’s thought that acupuncture may downregulate TNF-α and ET, thereby reducing blood pressure. In another study of patients with high blood pressure, 30 minutes of electroacupuncture (in which the needles are stimulated with electricity) a week led to slight declines in blood pressure.12
Study co-author Dr. John Longhurst, a cardiologist at the University of California, Irvine, told WebMD, "Potentially, blood pressure can be kept low with a monthly follow-up treatment.” He continued:13
“A noticeable drop in blood pressure was observed in 70 percent of the patients treated at the effective points, an average of 6 to 8 mm Hg for systolic blood pressure [the top number] and 4 mm Hg for diastolic blood pressure [the lower number].”
Acupuncture Even Works for Fibromyalgia Pain and Pain in Children
One of the most common uses for acupuncture is in treating chronic pain. One analysis of the most robust studies available concluded that acupuncture has a clear effect in reducing chronic pain, more so than standard pain treatment.14
Study participants receiving acupuncture reported an average 50 percent reduction in pain, compared to a 28 percent pain reduction for standard pain treatment without acupuncture.
Even fibromyalgia pain, which can be difficult to treat and is associated with sleep problems, fatigue and depression, may be improved.
In one study, 10 weeks of acupuncture decreased pain scores in fibromyalgia patients by an average of 41 percent, compared with 27 percent in those who received a sham procedure.15
The pain relief lasted for at least 1 year, leading researchers to conclude, “ … [T]he use of individualized acupuncture in patients with fibromyalgia is recommended.” Acupuncture also appears to be a safe and effective treatment for relieving chronic pain in children.
In a study of 55 children with chronic pain, those who received eight acupuncture sessions (each lasting about 30 minutes) reported significant reductions in pain and improved quality of life.16
Acupuncture for Depression, Cancer Patients and More
Acupuncture’s benefits extend to a myriad of other health conditions as well. Research suggests acupuncture works as well as counseling for treating depression, for instance.17 It may also improve fatigue, anxiety and depression in cancer patients in as little as eight weeks — and much more.18
The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted an extensive review and analysis of clinical trials related to acupuncture and reported the procedure has been proven effective for the following diseases:19
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Acute bacillary dysentery
Acute epigastralgia (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Additionally, acupuncture has also shown a therapeutic effect for treating the following diseases and conditions, which range from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and addictions to whooping cough, although further research is needed:
Abdominal pain (in acute gastroenteritis or due to gastrointestinal spasm)
Are Certain Types of Acupuncture Better Than Others?
Similar benefits have been found for different types of acupuncture treatment. For instance, sometimes the stimulation of acupuncture points is done using electricity, lasers or acupressure (the use of pressure to stimulate acupuncture points).
The term acupuncture is often used to describe all of these modalities, as each has shown similar benefits. This means that if you like the idea of trying a natural, ancient technique like acupuncture, but don’t like the idea of having needles inserted into your body, there are needle-free alternatives, such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, or EFT, you can try that may offer many of the same benefits.
If you decide to try out traditional acupuncture, be aware that the success of your treatment depends on the expertise of your practitioner. While there are acupuncturists that have general specialties, there are also those that specialize in different health conditions, such as pain relief, depression, infertility or neurological disorders. Choose an acupuncturist that is experienced in your area of need who will work with you to develop a plan for healing.