Acupuncture for pain
Question from the Field
What can acupuncture do for me?
Acupuncture is an ancient form of Chinese medicine. Thin needles are inserted into the skin at points of the body that are thought to regulate the body's flow of energy (also known as qi or chi). It often is used for common health concerns such as headaches and migraines, carpal tunnel syndrome, and back, joint, and chronic pain. For more in-depth information, read HPRC’s InfoReveal on acupuncture for pain management.
A printable version of this information can be found here [PDF].
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), "Acupuncture, among the oldest healing practices in the world, is part of traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture practitioners stimulate specific points on the body—most often by inserting thin needles through the skin. In traditional Chinese medicine theory, this regulates the flow of qi (vital energy) along pathways known as meridians." There are more modern theories about the effects of acupuncture on the human body, but Western medicine is still not clear how acupuncture works.
There are two basic types of acupuncture:
- Manual acupuncture is the traditional method in which a practitioner inserts the needles manually at specific parts of the body.
- Electroacupuncture is similar to manual acupuncture, with the addition of a small, non-harmful electrical current between pairs of acupuncture needles.
In addition to pain management, acupuncture can improve overall well-being and reduce stress. It generally requires 30–45 minutes, which leaves some people time to rest and/or relax. As with many of the mind-body techniques, it can be used along with other pain treatments.
What We Know
Acupuncture is a low-risk treatment that may improve pain for some people with certain types of pain conditions.1 Although researchers are continuing to examine whether acupuncture may help pain, it is unclear whether it is consistently helpful for different types of pain. The following highlight some findings from studies that examined the influence of acupuncture on different types of pain:
- Acupuncture can improve carpal tunnel syndrome, possibly as well as some medications.2,3
- There is some evidence that acupuncture might work just as well as some medications for chronic headaches4, but the evidence for its use with chronic headaches is not conclusive; further research is needed.
- There are conflicting reports about how well acupuncture works for chronic pain and migraines.5,6
- Acupuncture may be helpful for osteoarthritis, specifically knee pain, as well as plantar heel pain.7
- Acupuncture is better than no treatment for low-back pain, but it is not known whether it is better than other low-back pain treatments.8,9 At this time, it is unclear whether acupuncture can be considered as effective as other back pain treatments such as stretching, exercise, and medications.
NCCAM says that acupuncture is “generally considered safe when performed correctly.” It is essential to seek out a licensed acupuncturist who is well qualified and uses sterile, disposable needles. Make sure that you and your acupuncturist are aware of the following issues:
- The most common side effects are soreness and redness at the needle sites.
- In very rare circumstances, if performed incorrectly, it can cause infections or puncture an organ. People with bleeding disorders, women who are pregnant, and (if using electroacupunture) people with pacemakers may be at increased risk for side effects when using acupuncture.
Acupuncture should not be a replacement for treatment by a physician, so make sure to discuss with your doctor as it may be able to be used in conjunction with other treatments.
According to the Pain Management Task Force report, the DoD and the VHA are integrating acupuncture into pain management.10,11
- Acupuncture also is being used in theater for a variety of health concerns, including pain.
- There is even a special issue of Medical Acupuncture about the military’s use of acupuncture.
- The Army, Air Force, and Navy are all using acupuncture in their pain clinics. That means acupuncture may be available at many MHSs and VAHCSs.
- There are ongoing research and clinical studies looking at whether acupuncture can help manage pain for service members and veterans. For instance, one study is examining whether acupuncture helps quality of life, pain, and sleep of veterans with Gulf War Illness.12
Low-cost and free acupuncture clinics for service members and veterans are now available across the country; ask your local DoD/VHA healthcare providers for referrals. For more military-specific findings in pain management treatments, check out the Defense & Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management website.
Note: This InfoReveal is educational overview that describes the use of mind-body techniques as a strategy for pain management; it is not a comprehensive review of the current state of the research.
This InfoReveal was created in collaboration with the Defense & Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management.
- Madsen MV, Gøtzsche PC, Hróbjartsson A. Acupuncture treatment for pain: systematic review of randomised clinical trials with acupuncture, placebo acupuncture, and no acupuncture groups. BMJ. 2009;338(a3115).
- Khosrawi S, Moghtaderi A, Haghighat S. Acupuncture in treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome: A randomized controlled trial study. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. 2012;17(1):1-7.
- Yang C-P, Hsieh C-L, Wang N-H, Li T-C, et al. Acupuncture in patients with carpal tunnel syndrome: A randomized controlled trial. The Clinical Journal of Pain. 2009;25(4):237-3.
- Sun Y, Gan TJ. Acupuncture for the Management of Chronic Headache: A Systematic Review. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 2008;107(6):2038-47.
- Schiapparelli P, Allais G, Rolando S, Airola G, et al. Acupuncture in primary headache treatment. Neurological Sciences. 2011;32(1 Supplement):15-8.
- Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, Lewith G, et al. Acupuncture for chronic pain: individual patient data meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2012;172(19):1444-53.
- Clark RJ, Tighe M. The effectiveness of acupuncture for plantar heel pain: a systematic review. Acupuncture in Medicine. 2012;30(4):298-306.
- Hall H, McIntosh G. Low back pain (chronic). Clinical Evidence. 2008;2008(1116).
- Hutchinson AJP, Ball S, Andrews JCH, Jones GG. The effectiveness of acupuncture in treating chronic non-specific low back pain: a systematic review of the literature. Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research. 2012;7(36).
- Adams E. Brief Overview: A Summary of the Evidence for Use of Acupuncture From Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. Boston, MA: Veterans Health Administration;2007.
- Office of The Army Surgeon General. Pain Management Task Force Final Report: DoD/VHA;2010.
- Conboy L, John MS, Schnyer R. The effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of Gulf War Illness. Contemporary Clinical Trials. 2012;33(3):557-62.