Acupuncture is a safe alternative to medication for many people, but research is divided on whether it's effective. So, in case you are considering sticking dozens of tiny needles into your body to try to get relief from pain, here's what you need to know about the alternative therapy.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is one of the key practices of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting very thin needles through the skin at key points on your body. The procedure is often used to treat various types of pain, but it's often used to treat other conditions as well.

In traditional Chinese practice, acupuncture is considered a way to balance the flow of energy in the body, reports the Mayo Clinic. The body's life force — called chi or qi — is thought to flow through pathways in the body. When needles are inserted into specific points along those paths, practitioners believe they can balance the body's flow of energy.

Western practitioners use those same points to stimulate muscles, nerves and connective tissue. They believe this triggers your body to release natural pain killers, called endorphins.

More than 3 million Americans use acupuncture, according to WebMD, but the practice is even more popular in other countries. In France, for example, one in five people has tried it.

Why do people try this therapy?

People often try acupuncture to treat the pain linked to various conditions, including:

  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Osteoarthritis/knee pain
  • Headaches, including migraine and tension
  • Nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy
  • Dental pain
  • Labor pain
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Respiratory disorders, such as allergic rhinitis

Acupuncture safety

hand holding acupuncture needle Acupuncture needles are very thin and are typically single-use and disposable to help ward off infections. (Photo: maoyunping/Shutterstock)

Most people say acupuncture needles cause very little or no pain when they are inserted.

The health risks are low for the procedure if you have a certified, well-trained acupuncture professional who uses sterile needles, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The most common side effects include temporary soreness and mild bleeding or bruising at the sites where the needles were inserted. Because the standard practice is to use disposable, single-use needles, the risk of infection is small.

There are some people, however, who shouldn't have acupuncture. You may face complications if you have certain conditions:

A bleeding disorder can increase your chance of bleeding or bruising from the needles. The same is true if you are taking blood thinners.

If you have a pacemaker, acupuncture that applies electric pulses to the needles can interfere with how it functions.

Avoid acupuncture if you're pregnant. Some types of acupuncture are believed to trigger labor, which could cause premature delivery.

Does it work?

woman getting acupuncture in face Some studies show acupuncture can help with tension and migraine headaches. (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Skeptics say acupuncture works for people because of the placebo effect: It's effective only because they believe it is.

There have been many studies, however, focused on the effectiveness on the procedure. Results have been mixed, depending on what the acupuncture was being used to treat. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, studies suggest that it may help ease chronic pain such as low back, neck and osteoarthritis/knee pain. It might also prevent migraine headaches and lower the frequency of tension headaches.

For example, a 2012 analysis found that acupuncture was more helpful than either no acupuncture or placebo acupuncture for back and neck pain. An earlier review by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that acupuncture relieved low-back pain immediately after treatment but not over longer periods of time.

A 2014 clinical study involving 282 Australian men and women found that needle and laser acupuncture were only slightly better at easing knee pain from osteoarthritis than no treatment at all, but not better than simulated (placebo) laser acupuncture. A 2012 analysis of acupuncture studies found that acupuncture was more successful in treating osteoarthritis pain than simulated or no acupuncture.

In several reviews, researchers found that actual acupuncture could have an impact on tension or migraine headaches. Studies showed that acupuncture had a slight edge over simulated acupuncture in easing the intensity of tension headaches and their frequency. A similar review found that adding acupuncture to basic migraine care helped reduce their frequency. But other studies found that the effect may have been due to chance.

Studies that looked at acupuncture's success treating other conditions such as cancer, depression, fibromyalgia and dental pain had mixed results.

Acupuncture may offer extra pain relief when it's used in conjunction with pain medication or another therapy, such as massage, says WebMD. It can improve the quality of life for people with chronic pain, and reduce the need for medication.

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.