Benefits of Acupuncture in Pain Management

Lawrence Chang, DO, MPH February 20th, 2024

Introduction to Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient form of treatment for a variety of conditions and ailments. Acupuncture uses filiform or solid hair thin needles to meridian based pressure points to manage pain holistically. Their goal is to restore energetic balance to the body. In America, acupuncture is in the realm of complementary and alternative medicine, which has been shown to have strong evidence for musculoskeletal pain management.

Historically, the origins of acupuncture started in China, approximately 2,500-3000 years ago as crude, sharp stones to treat illness and bodily pains. Later, throughout the Chinese history, acupuncture became more of an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and oriental medicine. Acupuncture needles would evolve to become more refined as the needles would be thinner and take on various shapes, sizes, and lengths to treat pains around certain parts of the body. Broadly, most modern-day acupuncture evolved to incorporate more Western anatomy and physiology to the pre-existing meridian-based medicine to understand and better treat pain. 

There is scientific evidence which points to the efficacy of acupuncture in pain management. In one large review of studies, the use of acupuncture to treat back, headaches, and osteoarthritis may last for up to year. 1,2   Neck pain was variable in duration of effect with acupuncture1,2. Most of acupuncture has been shown to be good for chronic pain as opposed to acute pain. 1,2   Acupuncture may be able to reduce opiate consumption and manage chronic pain especially for cancer pains. 3,4   Modern forms of acupuncture, which may include dry needling, or called ‘ashi’ points (localized pain points), have been shown to be helpful in treating myofascial trigger points (muscle knots in the body) for neck pains. 5,6,7  

How Acupuncture Works

Essentially, acupuncture works through the five elements and yin and yang theory. The body flows through a life force or “qi” which if disrupted from any internal or external forces that can cause blockages, and therefore bodily pain(s) and/or myofascial restrictions. Acupuncture is a treatment modality with a similar concept to massage to unlock these bodily restrictions or dysfunctions except acupuncture is done through more precise and thorough targeting of pressure points via needling. Acupuncture restores the energetic balance via manipulating or controlling the meridians (topographic energetic pathways along the body for an organ) which need to be stimulated or relaxed to relieve pain. 

Sometimes treating back pain may be augmented by treating the foot, hands, ear, or the head in addition to the points the back to manage the back pains. Acupuncture may include other modalities such as heat, moxibustion, electrical stimulation, herbs, cupping, gua sha (or Graston technique; instrumental assisted devices), manual manipulation, or massage to help unblock meridian pressure points and allow the body to flow naturally with pain relief. The role of acupuncture is to help put the body into balance but not necessarily always to “cure” the disease or condition at hand. Rather acupuncture in addition to diet, exercise, and wellness works best to help harmonize one’s energies and quality of life. 

Usually, multiple acupuncture sessions (up to 10-20) are needed to gain full benefits of the treatment. Duration of treatment for acupuncture is at least 15 minutes and can go up to an hour for maximal effect. Every 15 minutes is when the body responds to the needling and enacts structural and physiological changes which allows for the body to relax more and then have pain reduction or relief.

Types of Pain Managed

Acupuncture can manage a variety of painful conditions. See below for the commonly managed pain conditions for which acupuncture can be helpful for:

  1. Back Pain
  2. Radiculopathy
  3. Osteoarthritis
  4. Tendinitis
  5. Ligamentitis
  6. Myofascial Pains
  7. “Muscle Knots” or Myofascial Trigger Points Headaches
  8. Postoperative or Scar Tissue Pains
  9. “Back Mice” or “Episacroiliac lipoma”

The Role of Acupuncturists

Acupuncturists use the location or locations of the pains as guides to where the pain is and apply the meridian based theory. This is how an acupuncturist can tell where there are deficits, blockages, asymmetries as well as tightness and weakness, which need to be addressed. Acupuncturists use local and/or distal points to reduce inflammation and pain to treat the body holistically. Patients are thus treated individually based on medical history and location(s) of bodily pains. For example, a pregnant patient may have shoulder pains, which are commonplace, but there are certain touch points that a trained or certified acupuncturist must know not to address, as they may cause the patient to go into labor.  

The importance of seeking a qualified acupuncturist or certified acupuncturist is to know which ones can manage your condition. Some acupuncturists are more specialized in OB/GYN or pregnancy related conditions, others more internal medicine related, and others more for orthopedic/muscle related conditions. In my practice, I do more orthopedic/muscle related acupuncture for pain management. Acupuncture plays a role in helping physicians help manage pain with less invasive methods, as well as less use of oral pain medications and opiate use.   

Benefits of Acupuncture

Acupuncture has benefits in reducing pain intensity and possibly improving quality of life, especially when sleeping at night or waking up with the pain(s). Acupuncture may also improve physical function by blocking restrictions and decreasing reliance on pain medications. Acupuncture can also be one of the modalities used for conservative management of pain to help “tune up” the body when there is fatigue and bodily pains. Additionally, acupuncture can be helpful as a pre- and post-surgical management of pains. 

Acupuncture is great for acute and chronic pains but seems to be best for chronic pains as it can help re-modulate or soften the tense tissues over time with needling. Acutely, acupuncture can help but sometimes may not be as long lasting. It can be quicker in treatment or stronger in pain relief than an injection, use of other modalities, or pain medications. However, from my experience, if there are acute myofascial strains or knots, generalized anxiety and/or stress, acupuncture can help treat this just as effective as injections.    

Holistic Approach

Acupuncture’s emphasis is always on treating the person, not the symptoms. The emotional and mental aspects are treated with acupuncture through educating the patient that pain is interrelated with the physical aspects. Being calm and relaxed during and after acupuncture is important as the body and mind needs to be working together to manage the pain at hand. Acupuncture is part of wellness (like meditation routines) where one works toward the goal of setting a best calm mind and body during every visit. This cumulative calm mental and emotional component is important as it helps to restructure our mind or mental perspective to learn how to better ourselves health-wise and puts our mind and body as one. 

Education in diet, exercises, and stress reducers are provided to patients to find how to help them achieve wholeness in their life and health. Once our mind and body are properly re-trained together with calming acupuncture needle treatments, stress and pain become less of a problem, and we can work to manage the pain better.


Acupuncture is a treatment modality, which can help with a multitude of musculoskeletal conditions and more. Acupuncture is growing and more people are aware of it and has potential to be part of mainstream medicine since it can help pain very much. Acupuncture is a viable pain management option, adjunct to, or alternative to exercises, injections, surgery, medicine, massage, and other modalities. 

If you are interested in discussing more about acupuncture, or would like to schedule an appointment with me, please do not hesitate to do so. I hope you can come by and have a pleasant and wonderful experience to help manage your pains!


  1. Vickers AJ, Vertosick EA, Lewith G, et al. Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis.  J Pain. 2018;19(5):455-474. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2017.11.005
  2. MacPherson H, Vertosick EA, Foster NE, et al. The persistence of the effects of acupuncture after a course of treatment: a meta-analysis of patients with chronic pain.  Pain . 2017;158(5):784-793. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000747
  3. Mao JJ, Liou KT, Baser RE, et al. 2021. Effectiveness of electroacupuncture or auricular acupuncture vs usual care for chronic musculoskeletal pain among cancer survivors: The PEACE randomized clinical trial. JAMA Oncology  7(5):720–727.
  4. Liou KT, Baser RE, Romero S, et al. 2020. Personalized electro-acupuncture versus auricular-acupuncture comparative effectiveness (PEACE): A protocol of a randomized controlled trial for chronic musculoskeletal pain in cancer survivors. Medicine 99(22):e20085
  5. Navarro-Santana MJ, Sanchez-Infante J, Fernández-de-Las-Peñas C, Cleland JA, Martín-Casas P, Plaza-Manzano G. Effectiveness of Dry Needling for Myofascial Trigger Points Associated with Neck Pain Symptoms: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Clin Med. 2020;9(10):3300. Published 2020 Oct 14. doi:10.3390/jcm9103300
  6. Martín-Sacristán L, Calvo-Lobo C, Pecos-Martín D, Fernández-Carnero J, Alonso-Pérez JL. Dry needling in active or latent trigger point in patients with neck pain: a randomized clinical trial. Sci Rep. 2022;12(1):3188. Published 2022 Feb 24. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-07063-0
  7. Fredy DM, Harpin D, Mihardja H. The role of acupuncture for myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) in interventional pain management.  J Complement Integr Med. 2022;19(2):213-217. Published 2022 Feb 17. doi:10.1515/jcim-2021-0525

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