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What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a complete and scientific system of medical diagnosis developed in China beginning over 3,000 years ago.  Acupuncture stimulates locations in the body with fine needles to evoke healing. Because of its history of safety and effectiveness, acupuncture is now practiced worldwide, and has become the subject of modern scientific investigation.  Scientific research is confirming acupuncture’s physiologic basis and clinical efficacy[1].

What can Acupuncture help?

Although acupuncture is known in the West primarily for pain control, acupuncture has been used for thousands of years in East Asia for almost all injuries and diseases.  Based on reviews of clinical studies, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization [2] have found that acupuncture is effective for over 100 different specific diseases and injuries from among the following categories:

  • Addictions
  • Dental pain
  • Dermatological
  • Digestive
  • Genito-urinary
  • Head/ear/eye/nose/throat
  • Infectious
  • Immunological
  • Neurological
  • Obstetric and gynecological
  • Orthopedics and Sports
  • Pain Management
  • Physical Rehabilitation
  • Pediatric
  • Psychiatric
  • Rheumatology
  • Vascular

Complete List of Health Conditions for which the World Health Organization Recommends Acupuncture

The NIH Consensus Statement on Acupuncture[3] states:  “The data in support of acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies.”

How does Acupuncture work?

Acupuncture initiates neural, vascular, immune, and endocrine responses that together result in:

  • Pain control and muscle relaxation
  • Reduction of inflammation and swelling
  • Normalization of blood flow and lymphatic drainage
  • Tissue and wound healing
  • Normalized or enhanced immune response
  • Increased joint range-of-motion
  • Normalization of organ activity
  • Stress reduction and mood enhancement

Chinese Medicine maintains that health depends upon the continuous and unobstructed circulation of blood and “qi” (properly translated as “vital air”, rather than “energy”) throughout the body.  The genius of the ancient Chinese physicians was to discover that the tiny stimulus of inserting fine needles could regulate the flow of “qi” and blood and bring about powerful  therapeutic effects by using the body’s own systems of internal control and self-healing.  The net effect of these processes restores both local and systemic homeostasis: the body’s normal state of dynamic, balanced function.

What are Acupuncture “points” and “channels?”

Ancient Chinese studies identified over 600 sensitive sites on the surface of the body that reflect disease, and can be stimulated for pain relief and other  health benefits.  Ancient Chinese physicians discovered how to regulate the flow of “qi” and blood throughout the body by using fine needles to stimulate the body’s own self-healing potential.  The ancient Chinese physicians recognized that this “vital air” (oxygen) travelled throughout the body through the blood vessels (translated as “channels” or “meridians”), along with nutritive substances in the blood (ie: glucose, vitamins, minerals, etc.) and that the human body required a smooth flow of this “vital air” and nutritive substances throughout the vessels in order to maintain health and prevent disease.  When obstruction of these substances occurs, it results in disease.[4]  Modern science has found that acupuncture “points” or “nodes”) have special properties including higher electrical conductance and inter-cellular communication, and a greater density of fine neural, vascular, and lymphatic structures.

What does Acupuncture feel like?

Acupuncture uses fine, hair-thin needles that are inserted superficially into the body.   Acupuncture needles are much smaller, flexible, and less painful that the hypodermic needles used for injections or blood sampling.  First-time patients are often surprised by how little they feel the insertion of acupuncture needles.

To obtain a therapeutic response, needles are manipulated until the patient feels a light distending, cramping, warmth, tingling or “electric” sensation around the insertion site.  Sometimes these sensations are felt to travel along pathways in the body.  The sensations typically subsides within seconds, but may be re-enforced through manual or electrical stimulation of needles.

Is Acupuncture safe?  What are the side effects?

With Clean Needle Technique and sterile, single-use, disposable needles, the risk of infectious disease transmission through acupuncture is reduced to negligible levels.  Adverse effects are uncommon and are generally limited to temporary, mild dizziness, faintness, or bruising or irritation around needle sites.  The NIH report states:  “one of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions.”

What is Acupuncture like?

Acupuncture diagnosis begins with an interview regarding medical history, symptoms and goals. The acupuncturist performs a physical examination including vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, etc.), and inspection and palpation of the disease or injury site, and associated acupuncture vessels.  Special tests may be conducted to further define the nature and cause of the condition.  The practitioner may also inspect the patient’s tongue and feel the qualities of the radial pulse, which give important clues to the patient’s overall health status.   Information gathered from the interview and examination is used to reach a diagnosis and determine appropriate procedures.

Acupuncture is usually performed with a patient lying comfortably on a clinic table.  The acupuncturist inserts the needles at a combination of related nodes at locations that may include the limbs, torso, and head.  After the needles are manipulated for a few seconds to produce a therapeutic stimulus, they are left in place while the patient lies quietly for 20-30 minutes.  Supplementary techniques performed to enhance or complement needling may include:

  • Electrical stimulation (barely perceptible milli- or micro-amps)
  • “Acupressure” and Chinese medical massage (tui na), suction cups, or friction (gua sha) to mobilize and relax muscle and connective tissue;
  • Warming needling sites with an infrared lamp, hot packs, ultrasound, or a smoldering Chinese herb called moxa;
  • Topical applications of analgesic and anti-inflammatory herbal plasters or liniments to the skin;

An acupuncturist may also recommend traditional Chinese nutritional supplements and dietary remedies, as well as therapeutic exercises and stretches (taiji, qi gong, dao yin).

How many sessions are necessary?

Based on a patient’s diagnosis, an acupuncturist may propose a plan, including number of visits, expected benefits, costs, risks, and alternative options. The number of sessions required will vary with each patient and their condition(s).

Symptomatic relief is often felt during the first session. Significant and lasting improvement may be evident by the 3rd or 4th session. Chronic or complex conditions may require 1-3 sessions per week for several months. More recent conditions are commonly resolved after 6-12 sessions.

Like any medical procedure, acupuncture has its limitations. If after a trial course of sessions, a patient or their practitioner finds that acupuncture is not effective for the patient’s condition, the practitioner should refer the patient to another physician for further evaluation.

Do I have to “believe” in Acupuncture for it to work?

No.  Beneficial effects of acupuncture have been demonstrated on animals and children, as well as on adults who have never received acupuncture before.  Acupuncture effects are not dependent on psychosocial variables[5].  As with any medical modality, a positive and open attitude towards the therapy support s healing outcomes.

Acupuncture can be used as a stand-alone procedure, or may be safely combined with other approaches. Patients are advised not to quit their current regime without discussion with the physician who prescribed that care.

Will insurance pay for Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is covered by many private health insurers that offer PPO plans, as well as by California Workers Compensation insurance. If you are an injured worker seeking to get acupuncture help, please call our office to get information on how to get authorization for acupuncture. Some HMOs will also cover acupuncture. Our office is a contracted provider for the San Jose Medical Group, so many of these patients can get acupuncture covered if prescribed by their primary care physician (PCP). Patients are advised to have their acupuncture benefits verified by our office prior to starting.

How is Acupuncture regulated?

Acupuncture in California is regulated by the California Acupuncture Board.  Information including standards of practice, practitioner license status, finding a qualified practitioner, and filing consumer complaints may be obtained at:


  • An explanation of how acupuncture works, based on peer-reviewed scientific research, may be found in The Dao of Chinese Medicine, Donald Kendall, PhD, Oxford University Press, 2002, available on the world-wide web.
  • Acupuncture:  Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials.  World Health Organization, 1996.
  • Acupuncture.  NIH Consensus Statement 1997 Nov 3-5; 15(5).
  • The Dao of Chinese Medicine, Donald Kendall, PhD, Oxford University Press, 2002
  • “Are psychosocial factors related to response to acupuncture among patients with knee osteoarthritis?”  Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 1999; 5(4):72-76.