Once an alternative treatment, acupuncture is moving into mainstream medicine, with research showing that it eases everything from stress to allergies to pain. Learn the latest on this powerful healing technique.
Photo: Yasu + Junko
The next prescription from your doctor just might be for acupuncture instead of pain meds. As the science increasingly shows that the ancient Chinese therapy can be as effective as drugs, more doctors are acknowledging its legitimacy. At the same time, exciting new discoveries about how acupuncture works are also boosting its standing as a bona fide medical treatment overall. "There's plenty of quality research supporting the use of acupuncture for a number of health conditions," says Joseph F. Audette, M.D., the chief of the department of pain management at Atrius Health in Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. (Related: Does Myotherapy for Pain Relief Really Work?)
For starters, one groundbreaking new study from Indiana University School of Medicine found that acupuncture prompts the release of stem cells, which can help tendons and other tissues repair, and also produces anti-inflammatory substances that are associated with healing. According to research at UCLA Medical Center, the needles cause the skin to trigger the release of molecules of nitric oxide—a gas that improves circulation in the smallest blood vessels in the skin. By carrying substances that can help dull pain and reduce inflammation, this microcirculation is essential to the healing process, says ShengXing Ma, M.D., Ph.D., the lead author.
Acupuncture also has a dramatic effect on your nervous system, calming you down so your body can rejuvenate faster, Dr. Audette says. When a needle is inserted, it stimulates small nerves beneath the skin, setting off a chain reaction that shuts down your fight or flight response. As a result, your stress levels plummet. “It’s basically what’s supposed to happen when you meditate, except it’s even stronger and faster,” Dr. Audette says. “Acupuncture relaxes your muscles, slows your heart rate, and reduces inflammation to promote healing.” (One study found that acupuncture and yoga both relieve back pain.) And it has minimal side effects—there’s a slight risk of minor bleeding and increased pain—so you can’t go wrong trying it. Here’s everything you need to know before scheduling your treatment.
Not All Needles Are Equal
There are three commonly available types of acupuncture: Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, Dr. Audette says. (Also see: What You Need to Know About Dry Needling.) The basic premise for all is that needles are placed into specific acupuncture points thought to relate to corresponding body parts. The main difference is in the needles themselves and the placement of them. Chinese needles are thicker and inserted deeper into the skin; practitioners also tend to use more needles per session and cover a wider area across the body. The Japanese technique uses thinner needles, which are pushed lightly into the skin, focusing on the abdomen, the back, and a few key spots along the meridian system, a weblike network of acupuncture points throughout your body. In some styles of Korean acupuncture, just four thin needles are used and placed strategically, depending on what condition you’re trying to treat.
All three types have benefits, but if you're nervous about the sensation of the needles, the Japanese or Korean styles may be a good starting point. (Related: Why Does Acupuncture Make Me Cry?)
There's a New, More Powerful Version
Electroacupuncture is becoming more common in the U.S. In traditional acupuncture, once the needles are placed in the skin, the practitioner wiggles or manually manipulates them to stimulate the nerves. With electroacupuncture, an electric current runs between a pair of needles to achieve the same effect. “There’s a lot of evidence show ing that electroacupuncture releases endorphins to relieve pain,” Dr. Audette says. “Also, you’re almost guaranteed a quick response, whereas manual acupuncture takes more time and attention.” The only downside? For some new patients, the feeling—a fluttering of the muscles when the current contracts—can take a little getting used to. Allison Heffron, a licensed acupuncturist and a chiropractor at Physio Logic, an integrative wellness facility in Brooklyn, says that your practitioner may nudge the current up slowly to help you tolerate it or start with manual acupuncture and then move on to the electro kind after a few sessions so you can acclimate.
There Are More Benefits to Acupuncture Than Just Pain Relief
The analgesic effects of acupuncture are powerful and well studied. But a growing body of research reveals that its benefits are more wide-ranging than doctors thought. For instance, allergy sufferers who started acupuncture at the beginning of pollen season were able to stop taking antihistamines nine days sooner on average than those who didn’t use it, according to a study from the Charité—University Hospital Berlin. (Here are more ways to get rid of seasonal allergy symptoms.) Other studies have indicated that the practice may be useful for gut issues, including irritable bowel syndrome.
Recent research has uncovered powerful mental benefits of acupuncture as well. It can decrease feelings of stress for up to three months after treatment, according to a study from Arizona State University. The reason for its long-lasting effects may have to do with the HPA axis, a system that controls our reactions to stress. In an animal study at Georgetown University Medical Center, chronically stressed rats that were given electroacupuncture had significantly lower levels of hormones known to drive the body’s fight or flight response compared with those that didn’t get the treatment.
And that may be just scratching the surface of what acupuncture can do. Scientists are also looking into the practice as a way to reduce migraine frequency, improve PMS symptoms, ease insomnia, boost the effectiveness of depression meds, lower blood pressure in people with hypertension, and reduce side effects of chemotherapy drugs. While much of the research is still in the early stages, it points to a pretty bright future for this ancient treatment.
The Standards Are Higher
As acupuncture becomes more mainstream, the requirements used to certify practitioners have gotten stricter. “The number of educational hours nonphysicians have to put in to qualify for the board certification test has steadily risen, from 1,700 hours of training to up to 2,100 hours—that’s about three to four years of studying acupuncture,” Dr. Audette says. And more M.D.’s are also undergoing acupuncture training. To find the best physician practitioner in your area, consult the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, a professional society that calls for an additional layer of certification. Only physicians who have practiced for five years and provide letters of support from their peers can be listed on the organization’s site.
If You're Not Into Needles... Meet, Ear Seeds
The ears have their own network of acupuncture points, Heffron says. Practitioners can needle the ears as they do the rest of your body, or place ear seeds, little adhesive beads that apply pressure to different points, for lasting effects without treatment. “Ear seeds can ease headache and back pain, reduce nausea, and more,” Heffron says. (You can buy the beads online, but Heffron says you should always have them placed by a practitioner. Here's all the info on ear seeds and ear acupuncture.)