Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Acupuncture for Pain Relief


Am Fam Physician. 2009 Sep 1;80(5):506.

  See related article on acupuncture.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is when thin needles are put into certain places on the body. Acupuncture has been an important part of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. In modern times, other acupuncture methods have been discovered. The most common of these is “electroacupuncture,” which is when mild electrical pulses are passed through the acupuncture needles into the body. Doctors who treat patients with acupuncture are more likely to use electroacupuncture than acupuncturists who are not doctors.

How does it work?

Doctors aren't sure how acupuncture works. The traditional explanation is that acupuncture restores the normal flow of energy in the body.

Why do people have acupuncture?

Acupuncture is most often used to treat low back pain, neck and shoulder pain, headaches, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and nerve pain.

Does it work?

Many people with a painful condition will feel somewhat or even completely better after acupuncture. Some people do not respond to acupuncture at all, and others do not respond well enough to make it worth the time and expense.

You may need several treatments before you know whether acupuncture will help. If it does help, you will have more treatments until the pain is better. At that point, treatments can be spaced further and further apart. You may need treatments every so often to keep the pain from coming back.

Is acupuncture painful? Is it safe?

Acupuncture needles are very thin and have no cutting edge. This makes them much less painful than needles used to give shots. Once acupuncture needles are in place, you may not feel them, or you might feel only a mild ache.

Acupuncture is safe. Complications are very rare. Some people have minor side effects, such as a headache or feeling tired. Sometimes symptoms get worse before they get better.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Medical Acupuncture

Web site:

National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

Web site:

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2009 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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