8 research-backed benefits of acupuncture from pain relief to stress reduction

A man lays facedown as an acupuncturist places an acupuncture needle on his back.
Benefits of acupuncture include relieving low back pain, headaches, and stress. Research on benefits continues to expand. Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images
  • Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine now widely used as a complementary treatment.
  • Acupuncture can help ease pain, pregnancy-related discomfort, digestive concerns, and stress.
  • Acupuncture shouldn’t replace medical treatment, so ask a doctor about adding it to your care plan.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

​​Acupuncture is a type of complementary medicine that uses needles inserted at specific sites on the body to help relieve pain and treat other health concerns. These needles aren’t the same as the ones you’re used to seeing at a doctor’s office — they are solid, very thin, and flexible.

“The needles don’t really hurt. Most people feel peaceful and calm during a treatment. They usually end up taking a nap,” says Sam Soemardi, a licensed acupuncturist at The People’s Acupuncture of Asheville.

It’s believed acupuncture originated in China approximately 3000 years ago. More recently, it continues to receive interest in the United States as research expands and Americans increasingly seek out complementary and alternative medicine.

And indeed, research does suggest that acupuncture can have benefits for certain conditions, but many people find it effective for issues beyond those supported by research

“Pain relief is the most common reason people come to my clinic, but I also see all sorts of health and wellness concerns, from autoimmune disease to insomnia to gynecological issues. People are just trying to find a way to feel better,” Soemardi says.

Here are eight conditions acupuncture may benefit.

1. Reduces anxiety

Anxiety disorders affect about 18% of Americans each year. Common treatments include talk therapy, medication, and — according to some preliminary research — acupuncture. 

In a small 2015 study of 36 people with chronic anxiety, participants reported a decrease in anxiety symptoms after receiving acupuncture for 10 weeks. This improvement lasted through follow-up 10 weeks later.

2. Helps with painful menstrual periods

Acupuncture may also have benefits for easing dysmenorrhea, or painful periods

  • In a small study from 2013, participants who received acupuncture reported as much relief from painful periods as participants who took NSAIDs, like ibuprofen or aspirin  
  • In a 2008 study of 649 women, 15 acupuncture treatments over three months appeared more effective for reducing menstrual pain and improving quality of life than usual care alone.

3. Alleviates digestive issues

Numerous studies show that acupuncture may help relieve different digestive concerns:

  • A study from 2007 found that adding acupuncture treatments twice a week for four weeks to a proton pump inhibitor regimen helped reduce heartburn and other symptoms of GERD more effectively than a doubled dose of medication. 
  • A 2016 review of 16 randomized controlled trials found that acupuncture appears to provide more relief from indigestion than medication, though the authors note that more high-quality research is needed to fully support their conclusion.
  • In a 2020 study, 344 people with IBS who received 18 acupuncture treatments over 6 weeks reported more improvement in their symptoms than the 175 participants who received medication only.

4. Offers pain relief during pregnancy

Acupuncture is safe to receive during pregnancy, and research suggests it can help relieve the low back and pelvic pain pregnant people commonly experience.

It could help with other common pregnancy concerns, too. 

“Moms-to-be come to see me for nausea, heartburn, difficulty sleeping, and aches and pains,” says Nic Pitts, a licensed acupuncturist who operates the private practice Onward Acupuncture

5. Provides stress relief

Everyone experiences stress sometimes, but finding ways to reduce or cope with stress can offer plenty of health benefits

Acupuncture works to relieve stress by regulating the autonomic nervous system, which helps get the body out of the flight or fight response

“This could be as simple as feeling your heart rate slow and breath lengthen, or it could be that you fall asleep. I tell patients that this feeling may stay with you and slowly fade for the rest of the day,” says Pitts.

6. Offers symptom relief during cancer treatment

Acupuncture is increasingly used as an integrative approach to cancer care. 

According to the National Cancer Institute, acupuncture can help with both cancer-related symptoms and side effects of treatment, including: 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue 
  • Hot flashes
  • Dry mouth caused by chemotherapy or radiation

7. Provides low back pain relief

Up to 80% of people will experience low back pain at some point in life, and many studies have explored the benefits of acupuncture for low back pain: 

  • In a 2007 study, 387 people who received acupuncture twice a week for ten sessions reported more relief from pain than those who received conventional treatments, including medication, physical therapy, and exercise.
  • In a 2009 study, people who received acupuncture treatments for low back pain reported more improvement than those who received their usual care. Even people who received simulated acupuncture, which involves the same pressure point approach but doesn’t penetrate the skin, saw an improvement.  

8. Reduces painful headaches

Evidence also suggests acupuncture can ease persistent head pain: 

How to find the right acupuncturist for you

When choosing an acupuncturist, you’ll want to make sure they attended a three or four-year accredited graduate program and hold a current state license

Before getting started, take the opportunity to ask any questions you have about the process. They’ll tell you what to expect, and they should also clearly communicate a treatment plan. 

Your acupuncturist should also use pre-wrapped, single-use, sterilized needles and dispose of these needles safely immediately after your session. This reduces the risk of infection and blood-borne diseases.

Feel free to ask what experience they have treating the issue you’re seeking help for — some practitioners might have more experience treating specific conditions or symptoms. 

“Make sure your acupuncturist is someone you can connect with. It’s very important to be comfortable with who you choose to work with,” Pitts says. 

Insider’s takeaway

Evidence supports acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating some common ailments, and research on this treatment continues to expand. 

That said, it’s generally recognized as a safe form of complementary medicine with few side effects, so if you’re considering alternative treatments for pain, anxiety, or digestive concerns, it could be worthwhile to give acupuncture a try.