Merck Manual

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Denise Millstine

, MD, Mayo Clinic

Reviewed/Revised Dec 2023

Acupuncture involves stimulating specific points on the body, usually by inserting very fine needles into the skin and underlying tissues. Stimulating these specific points is believed to affect the flow of qi (pronounced chee). Qi is the life force that permeates the body. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that illness results from the improper flow of qi along energy pathways or meridians (there are more than 2,000 of these points along the meridians). Stimulating these points helps restore the balance between yin (dark, feminine, negative forces) and yang (bright, masculine, positive forces).

Sometimes stimulation is increased by twisting or warming the needle.

Acupuncture points may also be stimulated by the following

  • Pressure (called acupressure)

  • Lasers

  • Ultrasound

  • A very low-voltage electrical current (called electroacupuncture) applied to the needle

Acupuncture is not painful but may cause a tingling sensation.

Medicinal Uses of Acupuncture

Proposed uses include

  • Pain relief, including after surgical or dental procedures

  • Relief of the nausea and vomiting that commonly occur during pregnancy or after surgery or chemotherapy

  • Treatment of addiction, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, headache, low back pain, fatigue, and joint pain

Acupuncture research is inherently difficult to conduct. Blinding (preventing research subjects and practitioners from knowing which people were given which treatment) is challenging in acupuncture studies. So-called "sham" acupuncture (insertion of needles at points other than those used in acupuncture) often puts pressure on acupressure points, making measuring acupuncture effects difficult. In some regions, particularly in China, published acupuncture studies tend to show a more positive effect. This may reflect bias, but it could also be that these providers are practicing the full schema of traditional Chinese medicine of which acupuncture is only a component.

Acupuncture is effective in treating several disorders and symptoms, though further study is needed. Comparing acupuncture to the control practice of sham acupuncture is complicated because the comparison therapy is still a relaxation practice with a provider. The placebo for acupuncture may involve using opaque sheaths containing a blunt needle or toothpick that is pressed against the skin but is not inserted, though this would still put pressure on acupuncture points. Many academic medical centers and healthcare organizations, including the World Health Organization, continue to investigate and explore the efficacy of acupuncture.

Possible Side Effects of Acupuncture

Side effects of acupuncture are usually mild if the technique is done correctly, but the following should be noted:

  • Temporary worsening of symptoms may occur.

  • Although rare, needle insertion can cause injury or infection to tissues (skin, muscle, or nerves).

  • Side effects such as headaches, dizziness, fainting, and sleepiness are rare.

  • As with any medical treatment involving needles, some people may feel faint and need to lie down.

  • Acupuncture may cause bruising or bleeding in people who have severe bleeding disorders or who take blood-thinning medications.

  • Rarely, deep needle placement can cause a collapsed lung and internal injury.

More Information

The following English-language resource may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

  • National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH): Acupuncture

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