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Can Acupuncture Help Ease Pain?

Most often, joint pain or muscle pain goes away on its own. Time, movement, and self-care tools such as exercise, cold packs, hot packs, and over-the-counter pain relievers can help ease pain and speed healing. But if you’ve had pain for more than a few weeks, and these tools have not helped it, you may want to try other therapies. One option you may want to think about trying is acupuncture. 

What is acupuncture? 

Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It is thought to balance the energy that flows along pathways—called meridians—throughout your body. This energy, or life force, is called “Qi” (pronounced “chee”). According to TCM, if your Qi becomes blocked or is too low, it may lead to pain or illness. To unblock Qi, very fine needles are placed into points along these pathways. This in turn may help ease pain and allow healing. 

How does it work? 

There is a fair amount of debate about acupuncture in the United States and other Western countries. It is still not well understood. But researchers are trying to figure out how it works on the brain and body. It’s thought that it may help release chemicals near the nerves around the acupuncture points, the spinal cord, and the brain to ease pain. And as with many treatments, a person’s belief in the treatment may also play a key role in how well it works.  

Can it ease pain? 

Studies on how well acupuncture eases pain are mixed. But there is good evidence that it can help ease chronic, local spine pain that does not travel down the arms or legs. Some studies have found it may provide short-term relief. Other studies suggest it may do a better job of easing this kind of pain when combined with other treatments. 

I s it safe? 

Acupuncture is quite safe when you go to a good practitioner. A skilled, licensed expert will use sterile, single-use needles. That means there is very little risk of infection. Plus, it is often painless. Sometimes, there may be a little bleeding or bruising at the needle sites. Organ injury can occur if the acupuncturist pushes the needles in too deeply. But this is not likely with a trained and highly skilled expert. 

Should you talk with your doctor? 

While acupuncture is safe for most people, some people may have a higher risk of side effects. Be sure to talk with your doctor if you: 

  • Have a bleeding disorder or take blood thinners 
  • Have a pace maker, or 
  • Are pregnant 

How do you find a qualified acupuncturist? 

To find a skilled acupuncturist it may help to: 

  • Ask friends or family to suggest someone. 
  • Talk with 2 or 3 acupuncturists. Ask about their training. Find out how many years of experience they have. And check their credentials.
  • Ask about the kinds of treatments they use. How does each one work to ease muscle and joint pain? How much does each one cost? 
  • Ask if they bill insurance. Then check if your insurance covers treatments.  

Is acupuncture right for you? 

Acupuncture is not for everyone. Track your progress to make sure it is helping to ease your pain. If not, you may want to combine it with another type of treatment. Chiropractic or physical therapy might be a good choice. But if your pain is still not any better after 4 to 6 weeks, it may be time to talk with your doctor about other treatments you might try. 

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Primary Author: Jason Nielsen
Clinical Reviewer: Jossue Ortiz, DC
Final Review and Approval by Jossue Ortiz, DC
--> Date of Annual Review:12/19/2022
Healthyroads' Editorial Staff follow a quality assurance process to help promote each article’s accuracy:
  • A health expert provides input on topic.
  • Scientific evidence from widely accepted health texts, peer-reviewed journals, and other reliable sources is consulted.
  • Final article is reviewed and approved by a health professional.
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