How does acupuncture help treat pain?

Acupuncture is a Chinese technique, and one of the oldest medicinal practices that is still being implemented today.

It seeks to prevent or treat diseases, conditions, and injuries by inserting fine, solid needles at different strategic points in the body, along the 14 major meridians or pathways that carry the body’s energy.

Among its most notable uses is pain relief, but why is this benefit? Let’s review it:

Does acupuncture work for pain?

Although acupuncture has been used for more than 4,000 years, it is still considered by many to be a controversial treatment for relieving chronic pain. Most of the available scientific evidence for this benefit comes from randomized trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture, to analyze the incidence of the placebo effect.

In the study published in American Family Physician, support the notion that “acupuncture treatment has a remarkable response to placebo that may be responsible for many of its demonstrated benefits.”

Although they agree that it is a “reasonable treatment” for certain patients, especially those who do not respond or are intolerant to standard therapies.

  • Acupuncture, myths and truths

Instead, the publication of The Journal of PainAfter analyzing data from more than 20,000 patients, he confirmed “that acupuncture has a persistent and clinically relevant effect on chronic pain that is not fully explained by the effects of placebo.”

Therefore, the authors consider that referral for acupuncture treatment “is a reasonable option for a patient with chronic pain.”

Another work published in The Journal of Pain, notes that acupuncture is effective for treating chronic musculoskeletal pain, headache, and osteoarthritis. The effects of acupuncture treatment persist over time and cannot be explained solely in terms of placebo effects.

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Publishing JAMA Clinical Evidence Synopsis reported that people who received acupuncture showed better results with respect to pain compared to those who received sham acupuncture and did not undergo this technique.

According to the authors, “response rates of approximately 30% for non-acupuncture, 42.5% for sham acupuncture, and 50% for acupuncture” were shown.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is used, among other things, to treat pain, although the mechanisms behind its benefits are not yet fully understood. To understand them we must go back to their origins.

Chinese doctors referred to “Qi” (pronounced “chi”) to describe the energy that circulates through the meridians. According to their beliefs, illnesses occurred when Qi was disrupted, causing energy imbalances. To correct this situation, acupuncture was used.

From a scientific point of view, it is believed that stimulating specific points in the body causes a signal in the muscles that send a message to the central nervous system, causing the emission of endorphins (natural chemical elements that remove pain).

This practice would also release other neurotransmitters (chemical elements that modify the impulses of neurons), which have regulatory effects and would help block the arrival of the pain message to the brain.

Acupuncture is not painful as long as it is done correctly. | Photo: Getty Images.

Other benefits of acupuncture

In addition to pain, clinical studies have shown that acupuncture can be effective as a complementary treatment for:

  • Anxiety.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sciatica.
  • Depression.
  • Sprains
  • Gastritis.
  • Hypertension.
  • Induction of labor.
  • Insomnia.
  • Malposition of the fetus.
  • Nausea and vomiting

Doubts about acupuncture

Beyond the contradictions about its benefits, acupuncture is often surrounded by assumptions, often unjustified. Here we answer the main questions:

  • Is acupuncture painful?: No. Treatment is not painful, as long as it is done correctly. The patient may feel slight stings when the needles are inserted or show bruising once they are removed. However, the needles are very fine and do not cause tissue damage because they do not have a cutting edge like hypodermic ones.
  • Is there a risk of contagion when undergoing acupuncture?: No. Needles used by licensed professionals are sterile, made of stainless steel, individually sealed, and disposable. Reused needles can transmit blood-borne diseases such as HIV or hepatitis. To avoid this risk, the use of sterile single-use needles is required by law in countries where acupuncture is regulated.
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Acupuncture risks

Different studies agree that acupuncture generally does not cause serious side effects.

If dizziness and rapid and involuntary eye movements have been reported after receiving treatment, although it is believed that inaccurate diagnoses, poor technique, wrong choice of points or wrong depth of needle insertion, may be the causes.

The researchers caution that people with the following conditions may be at risk:

  • Pregnancy: among the effects of acupuncture is to induce labor, so the risk that this practice triggers premature labor is considered.
  • Pacemaker: its operation can be affected if electro acupuncture is used, which consists of applying slight electrical impulses to the needles.
  • Bleeding disorder: There is a probability of bleeding or bruising.

How much acupuncture do I need?

The typical acupuncture treatment consists of inserting between 5 and 20 needles at strategic points on the body at different depths. The acupuncturist may gently move and twist the needles, or apply heat or mild electrical impulses to them. After 10 or 20 minutes, the needles are removed.

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It is difficult to estimate the number of sessions needed to find relief for a specific problem. The amount is different for each person, although, depending on the severity of the condition, illness or disease, one to two sessions a week for five or six weeks are recommended.

Acupuncture is not for everyone, but if you decide to see an acupuncturist, check with your doctor first and be sure to find a professional with training and credentials.


Acupuncture is one of the oldest medicinal practices that continues to be implemented. It consists of applying needles in strategic points of the body to reestablish the balance in the energy.

Among its most popular uses is pain relief, and although experts do not agree on the mechanisms behind this benefit, it is possibly because the signals it causes in the muscle cause the emission of messages to the central nervous system, stimulating the release of endorphins.

Although it does not have serious side effects, caution is advised in pregnant women and people with pacemakers or bleeding disorders. Consult a doctor before opting for this practice, and use a trained and licensed acupuncturist.

Sources consulted: American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, US National Library of Medicine, Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, World Health Organization.

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