The Science-Backed Benefits of Acupuncture

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In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture dates back more than 3,000 years. Centuries later, acupuncture spread to other parts of the world, primarily as a way to treat pain.

In this country, the National Institutes of Health first endorsed acupuncture in 1997, but it was introduced in the U.S. back in the 1800s and became popular in the 1970s. Today, millions of Americans — reassured by the science-backed benefits of acupuncture — turn to this ancient practice to alleviate an array of health problems.

Woman Enjoying the Benefits of Acupuncture on Practitioner Table with Needles in Back | Vitacost.com/blog

What is acupuncture?

As explained by Johns Hopkins Medicine, acupuncture involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are activated through gentle, targeted movements of a practitioner’s hands or with electrical stimulation.

“Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe the human body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points connected by pathways or meridians,” Johns Hopkins Medicine says.

These pathways create an energy flow (Qi, pronounced “chee”) through the body that is tied to overall health. Practitioners believe interference with this energy flow can cause disease. “By applying acupuncture to certain points, it is thought to improve the flow of Qi, thereby improving health,” Johns Hopkins Medicine says.

Benefits of acupuncture

So, how does acupuncture improve health? Well, even though it’s been around for centuries, we’re still learning about the benefits of acupuncture.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says a number of research studies suggest that acupuncture may help treat types of chronic pain affecting the lower back, neck and knees. In addition, it might help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches.

“Therefore, acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider. However, clinical practice guidelines are inconsistent in recommendations about acupuncture,” the center says.

According to the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Diego medical school, other potential benefits of acupuncture include treatment of:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Infertility
  • Cancer pain
  • Digestive issues
  • Nausea
  • Obesity
  • Acute spine pain
  • Post-surgery pain
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Tobacco dependence
  • Alcohol dependence
  • Drug dependence
  • Asthma
  • Allergies

“Most patients feel pleasantly relaxed and refreshed after an acupuncture treatment. Patients who were experiencing pain before the acupuncture session are often pleasantly surprised to find their discomfort greatly reduced after the treatment,” says the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.

Does health insurance cover acupuncture?

Many health insurers cover acupuncture treatments, although you’ll likely need to come up with a copay of roughly $15 to $25. Without insurance, an initial visit to an acupuncture practitioner may cost $75 to $95, while a routine visit may run $50 to $70.

The first visit with an acupuncturist might last about an hour, while a follow-up visit should take about 20 to 30 minutes.

Research published in 2022 by the journal JAMA Open Network found the annual cost of acupuncture visits in 2018 and 2019 was $1,022, with out-of-pocket expenses representing about 50% of that total.

Tips for trying acupuncture

Are you eager to give acupuncture a try? Follow these six tips as you embark on your acupuncture journey:

1. Seek referrals. Ask your primary care physician or another health care professional for acupuncturist recommendations. In addition, seek suggestions from family, friends and colleagues. You also might reach out to a national acupuncture organization for a referral.

2. Do your homework. Once you’ve settled on an acupuncturist, be sure to research their background before making an appointment. What kind of training do they have? What licenses or certifications have they obtained? How much experience have they got?

3. Look at the reviews. Poke around online to see whether patients have posted reviews about their experience with an acupuncturist you’re thinking about visiting.

4. Inquire about insurance. Ask the acupuncturist what, if any, health insurance they accept. Also, check with your health insurer to find out what they do and do not cover when it comes to acupuncture.

5. Dig into the cost. Be sure to find out how much an acupuncturist charges for treatments and how many sessions they recommend.

6. Ask questions. Before an acupuncturist treats you, inquire about their communication style, their approach to acupuncture and other details. The answers will help you decide whether this acupuncturist is a good fit.

Who should avoid acupuncture?

Acupuncture is considered safe if it’s done by a skilled, certified practitioner who uses sterile, one-time-use needles. Typical side effects include soreness, minor bleeding or minor bruising where the needles are inserted.

Nonetheless, this ancient treatment isn’t for everyone. Among those who might want to avoid acupuncture are:

  • Infants and very young children
  • People who are very elderly or very weak
  • People whose immune systems are compromised
  • People with several bleeding disorders
  • People with drastically low blood pressure
  • People with severe anxiety
  • People who fear needles

Although acupuncture is generally viewed as safe for pregnant women, some acupuncture targets should be avoided. A pregnant woman who wants to undergo acupuncture should consult their OB-GYN and their acupuncturist before being treated.

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