Once an alternative treatment, acupuncture is moving into mainstream medicine, with research showing that it eases everything Once mainstrea from stress to allergies to pain. Learn the latest on this powerful healing technique – and how it can help you.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Once an alternative treatment, acupuncture is moving into mainstream medicine, with research showing that it eases everything Once mainstrea from stress to allergies to pain. Learn the latest on this powerful healing technique – and how it can help you.

The next prescription from your doctor just might be for acupuncture instead of pain meds. As the science increasingly shows that the ancient Chinese therapy can be as effective as drugs, more doctors are acknowledging its legitimacy. At the same time, exciting new discoveries about how acupuncture works are also boosting its standing as a bona fide medical treatment overall. “There’s plenty of quality research supporting the use of acupuncture for a number of health conditions,” says Dr Joseph Audette, chief of the department of pain management at Atrius Health in Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

For starters, one groundbreaking new study from Indiana University School of Medicine found that acupuncture prompts the release of stem cells, which can help tendons and other tissues repair themselves, and also produces anti-inflammatory substances that are associated with healing. According to research at UCLA Medical Center, the needles cause the skin to trigger the release of molecules of nitric oxide – a gas that improves circulation in the smallest blood vessels in the skin. By carrying substances that can help dull pain and reduce inflammation, this microcirculation is essential to the healing process, says Dr Sheng-Xing Ma, the study’s lead author.

Acupuncture also has a dramatic effect on your nervous system, calming you down so your body can rejuvenate faster, Dr Audette says. When a needle is inserted, it stimulates small nerves beneath the skin, setting off  a chain reaction that shuts down your fight-or-flight response. As a result, your stress levels plummet. “It’s basically what’s supposed to happen when you meditate, except it’s even stronger and faster,” Dr Audette says. “Acupuncture relaxes your muscles, slows your heart rate and reduces inflammation to promote healing.” And it has minimal side effects – there’s a slight risk of minor bleeding and increased pain – so you can’t go wrong trying it. Here’s everything you need to know before scheduling your treatment.


There are three commonly available types of acupuncture: Chinese, Japanese and Korean, says Dr Audette. The basic premise for all is that needles are placed into specific acupuncture points thought to relate to corresponding body parts. The main difference is in the needles themselves and the placement of them. Chinese needles are thicker and inserted deeper into the skin; practitioners also tend to use more needles per session and cover a wider area across the body. The Japanese technique uses thinner needles, which are pushed lightly into the skin, focusing on the abdomen, the back and a few key spots along the meridian system, a weblike network of acupuncture points throughout your body. In some styles of Korean acupuncture, just four thin needles are used and placed strategically, depending on what condition you’re trying to treat.

All three types have benefits, but if you’re nervous about the sensation of the needles, the Japanese or Korean styles may be a good starting point.


Electroacupuncture is becoming more popular worldwide. In traditional acupuncture once the needles are inserted into the skin, the practitioner wiggles or manually manipulates them to stimulate the nerves. With electroacupuncture, an electric current runs between a pair of needles to achieve the same effect. “There’s a lot of evidence showing that electroacupuncture re leases endorphins to relieve pain,” Dr Audette says. “Also, you’re almost guaranteed a quick response, whereas manual acupuncture takes more time and attention.” The only downside? For some new patients, the feeling – a fluttering of the muscles when the current contracts – can take a little getting used to. Allison Heffron, a licensed acupuncturist and a chiropractor at Physio Logic, an integrative wellness facility in Brooklyn, says that your practitioner may nudge the current up slowly to help you tolerate it or start with manual acupuncture and then move on to the electro kind after a few sessions so you can acclimate.


The analgesic effects of acupuncture are powerful and well studied. But a growing body of research reveals that its benefits are more wide ranging than doctors thought. For instance, allergy sufferers who started acupuncture at the beginning of pollen season in Europe were able to stop taking antihistamines nine days sooner on average than those who did not use it, according to a study from Charite – University Hospital Berlin. Other studies have indicated that the practice may be useful for gut issues, including irritable bowel syndrome.

Recent research has uncovered powerful mental benefits of acupuncture as well. It can decrease feelings of stress for up to three months after treatment, according to a study from Arizona State University. The reason for its long-lasting effects may have to do with the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, a system that controls our reactions to stress. In an animal study at Georgetown University Medical Center, chronically stressed rats that were given electroacupuncture had significantly lower levels of hormones known to drive the body’s fight-or-flight response compared to those that did not get the treatment.

And that may be just scratching the surface of what acupuncture can do. Scientists are also looking into the practice as a way to reduce migraine frequency, improve premenstrual symptoms, ease insomnia, boost the effectiveness of depression meds, lower blood pressure in people with hypertension and reduce the side effects of chemotherapy drugs. While much of the research is still in the early stages, it points to a pretty bright future for this ancient treatment.

My Reading Room

New discoveries about how acupuncture works are changing people’s perspective of it.

The ears have their own network of acupuncture points, Allison says. Practitioners can needle the ears as they do the rest of your body, or place ear seeds – actual seeds from the vaccaria plant or tiny metal beads attached to adhesive tape – on ear acupressure points to stimulate them for lasting effects without treatment. “Ear seeds can ease headaches and back pain, reduce nausea, and more,” Allison says. (You can buy the seeds online, but Allison says you should always have them placed by a practitioner.)