Treating Chronic Pain with Acupuncture

Acupuncture, a medication-free treatment that places thin needles in targeted areas of the body, may be helpful in easing chronic pain and related problems.

According to research, acupuncture can be used to treat shoulder, neck, and back pain.
Acupuncture for Pain Relief

Acupuncture has long been a part of traditional healing in China, and first drew widespread interest in the United States in the 1970s as relations between the two nations improved.

Most commonly used to treat pain, acupuncture may also ease other symptoms, such as vomiting following surgery.1 This article explains how acupuncture is performed and how it may be helpful in treating pain.

Acupuncture is frequently recommended as a supplement to other medical treatments or an alternative to standard treatments for pain. The duration of pain relief from acupuncture generally ranges from several hours to weeks.

Studies in the medical literature have shown acupuncture can be as effective—or more effective—than other treatments for these painful conditions and symptoms:

  • Migraine headaches2,3
  • Nausea4
  • Osteoarthritis, including knee arthritis5
  • Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ)6,7
  • Neck pain8
  • Sciatica9

See Tension, Migraine, and Cluster Headaches

Acupuncture does not relieve pain in all situations. It is generally not helpful, for example, when back pain, rather than sciatica, is the major problem.


Differing Views on Acupuncture

While acupuncture plays an increasing role in modern medicine, the treatment's effectiveness remains a controversial topic in the medical community. Studies in the medical literature typically show moderate—rather than major—improvements in symptoms following acupuncture.

On the other hand, significant pain relief from acupuncture is frequently reported anecdotally. In many cases, the pain relief occurs after other treatments have been unsuccessful.

How Acupuncture Works

Under the traditional Chinese concept of acupuncture, the body has patterns of energy flow. The life force of the body is referred to as qi (pronounced "chee"), and maintaining the right flow of qi is thought to be key to good health.

Fine needles are positioned at specific locations on the body, called acupu-points in traditional Chinese medicine, to correct or maintain this flow. The needles are about 20 times thinner than a typical hypodermic needle used for an injection.

Symptoms of pain or other problems are seen as an indication that the entire body is out of balance. As a result, acupuncturists generally take a holistic approach to care rather than focusing mainly on the area in pain.


Some acupuncture practitioners, especially physicians, may be more likely to view acupuncture in physiological terms. Modern medicine generally emphasizes how acupuncture needles stimulate nerve and muscle cells, reducing the sensation of pain and releasing the body's natural painkillers, called endorphins.

Before considering acupuncture, it is advised to have a clear medical diagnosis to determine the cause of the pain. If a serious condition requiring medical treatment is present, it can be addressed first, with acupuncture an option later.

For more in-depth information, see Acupuncture: An Ancient Treatment for a Current Problem on


  • 1.Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, et al. Acupuncture for chronic pain: individual patient data meta-analysis. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012;172(19):1444-1453.
  • 2.Da silva AN. Acupuncture for migraine prevention. Headache. 2015;55(3):470-3.
  • 3.Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;(6):CD001218.
  • 4.Lee A, Chan SK, Fan LT. Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point PC6 for preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(11):CD003281.
  • 5.Manheimer E, Cheng K, Linde K, et al. Acupuncture for peripheral joint osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(1):CD001977.
  • 6.Jung A, Shin BC, Lee MS, Sim H, Ernst E. Acupuncture for treating temporomandibular joint disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, sham-controlled trials. J Dent. 2011;39(5):341-350. Volume: 15 Issue 2: February 23, 2009.
  • 7.La touche R, Angulo-díaz-parreño S, De-la-hoz JL, et al. Effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of temporomandibular disorders of muscular origin: a systematic review of the last decade. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(1):107-12.
  • 8.Fu LM, Li JT, Wu WS. Randomized controlled trials of acupuncture for neck pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Altern Complement Med. 2009;15(2):133-45.
  • 9.Ji M, Wang X, Chen M, Shen Y, Zhang X, Yang J. The Efficacy of Acupuncture for the Treatment of Sciatica: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:192808.