Does Acupuncture Work?

For certain conditions—particularly pain—there’s evidence it works. Exactly how it works is an open question.

You hear the term “acupuncture,” and visions of needles may dance in your head. But the 3 million Americans (and counting) who have tried it know there’s a lot more to the treatment than pokes and pricks.

A typical visit to an acupuncturist might begin with an examination of your tongue, the taking of your pulse at several points on each wrist and a probing of your abdomen. “They didn’t have MRIs or X-rays 2,500 years ago, so they had to use other means to assess what’s going on with you internally,” says Stephanie Tyiska, a Philadelphia-based acupuncture practitioner and instructor.


These diagnostic procedures inform the placement of the needles, Tyiska says. But a visit to an acupuncturist could also include a thoughtful discussion of your diet and personal habits, recommendations to avoid certain foods or to take herbal supplements and an array of additional in-office treatments—like skin brushing or a kind of skin suctioning known as “cupping”—that together fall under the wide umbrella of traditional Chinese medicine.

But does it work? Figuring out whether each one of these practices may be therapeutically viable is a challenge, and determining how all of them may work in concert is pretty much impossible. Combine them with acupuncturists’ frequent references to “qi,” or energy flow, and it’s easy for a lot of people to dismiss the practice as bunk.

This article originally appeared on and was written by Markham Heid

Ask Smithsonian: Does Acupuncture Work?