Acupuncture is a treatment derived from ancient Chinese medicine in which fine needles are inserted at certain sites in the body for therapeutic or preventative purposes.
It is often seen as a form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM), although it is used in many NHS general practices, as well as the majority of pain clinics and hospices in the UK.
Western medical acupuncture is the use of acupuncture after a proper medical diagnosis. It is based on scientific evidence that shows the treatment can stimulate nerves under the skin and in muscle tissue.
This results in the body producing pain-relieving substances, such as endorphins. It is likely these substances are responsible for any beneficial effects seen with this form of acupuncture.
Traditional acupuncture is based on the belief that an energy, or "life force", flows through the body in channels called meridians. This life force is known as Qi (pronounced "chee").
Practitioners who adhere to traditional beliefs about acupuncture believe that when Qi does not flow freely through the body, this can cause illness. They also believe acupuncture can restore the flow of Qi, and so restore health.
Read more about what happens during acupuncture.
What is it used for?
Acupuncture practitioners – sometimes called acupuncturists – use acupuncture to treat a wide range of health conditions.
It is often used to treat pain conditions such as headache, lower back pain and osteoarthritis, but is also sometimes used in an attempt to help people with conditions ranging from infertility to anxiety and asthma.
Acupuncture is occasionally available on the NHS, although access is limited. Most acupuncture patients pay for private treatment.
Read more about the common uses of acupuncture.
Does it work?
Currently, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) only recommends considering acupuncture as a treatment option for chronic lower back pain, chronic tension-type headaches and migraines. NICE makes these recommendations on the basis of scientific evidence.
There is also some evidence that acupuncture works for a small number of other problems, including neck pain and post-chemotherapy nausea and vomiting.
Acupuncture is sometimes used for a variety of other conditions as well, but the evidence is not conclusive for many of these uses.
Read more about the evidence for and against acupuncture.
When it is carried out by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is generally very safe. Some people experience side effects such as feeling drowsy or dizzy, but these are usually mild and short-lived.
If you choose to have acupuncture, make sure your acupuncture practitioner is either a regulated healthcare professional or a member of a recognised national acupuncture organisation.
Read more about acupuncture safety and regulation.
Acupuncture on the NHS
Acupuncture is sometimes available on the NHS, most often from GPs or physiotherapists, although access is limited.
Most acupuncture patients pay for private treatment. The cost of acupuncture varies widely between practitioners. Initial sessions usually cost between £35 and £60, and further sessions between £30 and £50.
Explore this guide for information about different types of back pain and how you can prevent it, plus advice on treatment
Page last reviewed: 15/07/2014
Next review due: 15/07/2016