What Are the Side-Effects of Acupuncture – and Does It Work?

Photo credit: Bigstockphoto
Photo credit: Bigstockphoto

Acupunture has become a popular alternative treatment for a variety of conditions. This method of healing is based on the idea that humans (and animals) have an energy force called “qi” that flow along twelve lines of energy called meridians through the body. When this energy flow becomes obstructed or imbalanced, it leads to mental or physical problems that manifest as pain or disease. By inserting needles into specific points on the body, the normal flow of qi or energy can be restored. It certainly sounds plausible, but does acupuncture work – and what are the side effects?

Does Acupuncture Work?

Studies looking at the effectiveness of acupuncture have been mixed. Many patients who undergo acupuncture for various conditions especially for treatment of pain report improvement – but some naysayers point to this as being a placebo effect. When studies have been set up comparing true acupuncture to “sham” acupuncture, where needles are used but not at true acupuncture points, the results were mixed.

For some conditions such as lower back pain, acupuncture hasn’t proven to be more effective than sham acupuncture, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers concluded based on these results that the benefits of acupuncture for lower back pain are small but probably better than no treatment at all.

Still, other experts are convinced that acupuncture does have benefits for treating some conditions such as post-operative pain. According to the Cochrane database, there’s also evidence to suggest that acupuncture helps post-operative nausea and vomiting. Unfortunately, it’s hard to design studies that include a good placebo for acupuncture. So whether acupuncture is really effective remains unsettled from a research standpoint.

The Side Effects of Acupuncture: Is It Safe?

The side effects of acupuncture treatments are usually minor. Only about one out of a hundred patients experience even minor problems during or after the procedure. The most common are lightheadedness, fainting, nausea and pain at the site where the needles were inserted. Occasionally, people experience bleeding or bruising at the acupuncture sites.

Lack of acupuncture risks is probably one of the greatest arguments in favor of this procedure. Medications used to treat pain, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can have serious side-effects and if a person has chronic pain, they may need to take these drugs for a long time, which increases their risk for problems. Acupuncture is a safe, although unproven alternative – and the side effects of acupuncture are few.

Acupuncture Risks and Benefits: The Bottom Line?

Acupuncture is still unproven, although it shows promise for treating some conditions including nausea and vomiting after surgery – and possibly some types of pain. When compared to the side effects of some medications used to treat pain, acupuncture is a safer alternative. Hopefully, more doctors and other medical practitioners will look at the benefits of this therapy for people in pain – before giving them potentially dangerous pain medications.


N Engl J Med. 2010;363:454-461.
Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (3): CD003281.

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