Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are a health care professional

honeypot link



Denise Millstine

, MD, Mayo Clinic

Last full review/revision Sep 2018| Content last modified Sep 2018
Click here for Patient Education

Acupuncture, a therapy within traditional Chinese medicine Traditional Chinese Medicine Originating > 2000 yr ago, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a medical system based on the philosophy that illness results from improper flow of the life force (qi). The movement of qi is... read more , is one of the most widely accepted complementary therapies in the western world and is often part of integrative medicine. Specific points on the body are stimulated, usually by inserting thin needles into the skin and underlying tissues. Stimulating these specific points is believed to affect the flow of qi (a universal life force) along energy pathways (meridians) and thus restore balance.

The procedure is generally not painful but may cause a tingling sensation. Sometimes stimulation is increased by twisting, warming, or otherwise manipulating the needle.

Acupuncture points may also be stimulated by

  • Pressure (called acupressure)

  • Lasers

  • Ultrasound

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

Evidence and Uses of Acupuncture

Acupuncture research is inherently difficult to conduct. Blinding is challenging and so-called "sham" acupuncture often puts pressure on acupressure points, thereby creating a different treatment experience that may not be truly inert. 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.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has helped with this clinical challenge by issuing a list of conditions for which they have deemed evidence of efficacy to be strong or available but for which additional study is recommended, including

  • Symptoms of cancer therapy

  • Depression

  • Dysmenorrhea

  • Pain

  • Headache

  • Hypertension

  • Post-operative symptoms

  • Some complications of pregnancy

  • Stroke complications

Possible Adverse Effects and Contraindications

Adverse effects of acupuncture are probably underreported, although treatments are generally safe. A 2012 review of adverse effects that were reported after acupuncture noted the following (1 Reference Acupuncture, a therapy within traditional Chinese medicine, is one of the most widely accepted complementary therapies in the western world and is often part of integrative medicine. Specific... read more ):

  • Retained needles (31%)

  • Dizziness (30%)

  • Loss of consciousness or unresponsiveness (19%)

  • Falls (4%)

  • Bruising or soreness at the needle site (2%)

  • Pneumothorax (1%)

  • Other adverse effects (12%)

Most (95%) were classified as causing little or no harm.

When correctly done, acupuncture is fairly safe, but skill and care vary among practitioners.


  • 1. Wheway J, Agbabiaka TB, Ernst E: Patient safety incidents from acupuncture treatments: a review of reports to the National Patient Safety Agency. Int J Risk Saf Med 24(3):163–9, 2012.

More Information

Click here for Patient Education
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version
Professionals also read

Test your knowledge

Options for Limb Prostheses
A patient with recent upper extremity amputation just below the elbow comes to the office for consultation regarding choices for a prosthesis. During the interview, the patient says that she would like to continue to work in construction and would most likely need a prosthesis that is inexpensive, durable, and requires little maintenance. Which of the following is the most appropriate prosthesis to recommend to this patient?
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID

Also of Interest