Of all the natural healing therapies out there — energy healing, EFT, reiki, Ayurveda, and so on — acupuncture might be one of the most widely recognized. While certainly not everyone sees an acupuncturist (not even close!), most people have at least heard of it, and there have been a fair amount of rigorous scientific studies on the practice. But still, most acupuncture facts aren’t common knowledge, and many of us have a lot of questions about it: What does acupuncture help with? How does acupuncture feel? Is there actually a legit connection between acupuncture and fertility? In this in-depth guide, we’ll answer all these questions and more.
So, What Exactly Is Acupuncture and Where Did It Come From?
Let’s start with the basic acupuncture facts. First off, acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and is based on the principle that the body’s qi (energy or life force in Chinese) needs to flow freely through the body in order for you to function properly. Our qi travels through the body via meridians, which you can think of like waterways connecting rivers and streams.
Imbalances in the body can block these meridians, stopping the flow of qi and thus disrupting the free-flowing energy in your body. This, in turn affects your mental, physical, and spiritual health and can result in illness, pain, or lack of function. Acupuncture seeks to clear these blockages. It does this by stimulating specific anatomic sites, called acupuncture points or acupoints, to encourage the flow of qi and help restore optimal health.
The most common way to stimulate these acupuncture points, and the thing you probably think of when you imagine acupuncture, involves inserting very thin needles into the skin. However, one of the little-known acupuncture facts is that the term acupuncture actually encompasses a whole variety of other ways to stimulate acupuncture points. This includes many techniques ranging from massage to cupping to heat therapy and the application of topical herbal medicines. Many acupuncture practitioners will use a variety of different methods as they work with a client’s particular issues.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
In the realm of TCM, the concept of qi and meridians explains the mechanism behind acupuncture. However, Western medicine doesn’t see that as a sufficient answer to the question, “How does acupuncture work?” Because of this, many Western researchers have sought more traditionally science-based reasons for its effectiveness.
From a conventional medicine point of view, there are a number of hypotheses on why acupuncture works, including:
- It stimulates the nervous system, which allows the body to release chemicals that stimulate natural healing abilities and pain reduction.
- It reduces inflammation by reducing certain pro-inflammatory markers.
- The needles create a tiny injury, which causes your immune system to ramp up and fight off whatever is causing you problems.
- It makes the body more receptive to its own pain-reducing chemicals.
While none of these hypotheses have been confirmed, they all offer interesting possible explanations for the effects of acupuncture.
What Does Acupuncture Help With?
Whatever theory of acupuncture you choose, the fact is that it can help with healing. But what does that mean, specifically? What does acupuncture help with?
The list of conditions that acupuncture can treat is very long. There are case-controlled clinical studies that show that acupuncture can be an effective standalone treatment for many conditions — take note of that word “standalone,” which is pretty impressive since it means that acupuncture on its own is doing all the healing work. Those conditions include (but are not limited to):
- Migraine headaches
- Musculoskeletal problems or pain (including low back pain and facial pain)
- Postoperative pain
All of the above conditions have very strong scientific evidence suggesting that they can be healed with acupuncture. But there are many other conditions for which there is powerful but more limited evidence showing that acupuncture can help. Those conditions include infertility, insomnia, obesity, drug dependence, and even schizophrenia, among many others.
Though conventional medicine can often be dismissive of forms of integrative or holistic medicine, this form of TCM has become so widely accepted (and corroborated by research) that many of the major insurance providers cover acupuncture treatment for a variety of conditions.
A Closer Look at Acupuncture and Fertility
If you’re mom-age or have any mom-age friends, you’ve likely heard some talk about acupuncture and fertility. There’s a reason for this: as we mentioned above, there’s limited but powerful evidence that acupuncture can help treat infertility. Because there’s such buzz around the topic of acupuncture and fertility, we wanted to look at this connection a bit more closely.
Given that 12% of women ages 15-44 are affected by infertility according to the CDC, it makes sense that acupuncture and fertility would be a big topic. From a TCM perspective, infertility occurs because of blockages in qi and blood flow, which is why acupuncture makes sense as a treatment. From a conventional medicine perspective, acupuncture can improve fertility in several ways, including:
- Improving sperm quality: This is important because only high-quality sperm will reach the egg (note that in this case, acupuncture must be done on the male partner).
- Balancing the endocrine system and hormones: This is important because disrupted hormones can impair ovulation.
- Boosting blood flow to reproductive organs: This is important because better circulation can improve the function of ovaries and follicles. Additionally, improved blood flow to the endometrium helps facilitate a thick, rich uterine lining, which boosts the chances of a fertilized egg implanting in the uterine wall.
- Relieving stress: This is important because the delicate relationship between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and reproductive glands mean that stress can prevent a woman from ovulating entirely. Stress can also cause spasms in the fallopian tubes and the uterus, which can interfere with the ability of the fertilized egg to move and implant. In men, stress can negatively impact sperm count and motility, as well as cause impotence.
Though the relationship between acupuncture and fertility hasn’t yet been confirmed by science, there’s a lot of research to suggest a connection. In one study, researchers found that acupuncture increases conception rates by an impressive 26%! The study, which came out of Tel Aviv University, found that when acupuncture and herbal therapy were combined with IUI (intrauterine insemination), 65.5% of patients were able to conceive, compared with 39.4% of the control group.
The American Pregnancy Association notes that acupuncture can’t help certain causes of infertility, including tubal adhesions that can occur as a result of pelvic inflammatory disease or endometriosis. Still, the connection between acupuncture and fertility is strong (hey, it helped WellBe team member Kate get pregnant!), and acupuncture can continue to be helpful even after conception: since most miscarriages happen within the first three months of pregnancy, many moms-to-be will continue getting acupuncture through week 12 of pregnancy, since the increased blood flow, lowered stress, and thickened uterine lining all help support a healthy pregnancy and reduce miscarriage risk.
How Does Acupuncture Feel? And More About What to Expect
Now that we’ve given you the basic acupuncture facts and answered the question of what acupuncture helps with, it’s time to get to the nitty gritty of what the whole process is actually like. If you choose to try acupuncture, where should you start? And what should you expect from your first appointment? Let’s get into it.
Heading to an appointment to get needles stuck into you might seem a bit scary, but it really shouldn’t be. Here’s what you should expect from your first appointment:
- First, your practitioner will ask for your medical history and concerns, and likely take your pulse and examine your tongue (they do this because the color of your tongue can reveal if you’re too hot or too cold).
- Then, you’ll lay down on the treatment table and the acupuncturist will insert needles into specific acupoints based on your needs.
- The needles shouldn’t hurt. With some you might feel a bit more of a sensation than with others, depending on where the needle is being inserted, but it should never be painful and you shouldn’t feel any discomfort once the needles are in.
- The acupuncturist will leave the room and let you relax while the needles do their work. They’ll stay in for around 5-30 minutes, depending on your needs.
- Finally, the acupuncturist will return, remove the needles, and send you on your way!
To make your first appointment go as smoothly as possible, make sure to come prepared. So before your appointment you should:
- Make a list of all your symptoms and current medications.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing (you may be asked to roll up sleeves/pants or remove certain items of clothing depending on which acupoints the practitioner needs to access).
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, or sugar beforehand.
- Don’t over- or undereat before or after the treatment.
But above all, remember that acupuncture should be relaxing. So don’t stress too much about your appointment — just trust in the process and enjoy a rare opportunity to be totally still.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Practitioner
If you’re interested in getting acupuncture, you’re probably asking yourself a couple questions right now. Like how do you choose a good acupuncturist? How much will it cost? And will insurance cover it? Luckily, we’ve got some answers for you.
First off, finding a practitioner. The main thing you need to know is that there are two types of acupuncturists:
- Certified Acupuncturist (CAc): This is a certified physician who has undergone a minimum 100-300 hours of training, which is often video-based. There’s no clinical experience requirement.
- Licensed Acupuncturist (LAc): This is the ideal practitioner. LAc’s are required to have 1,800-2,400 hours or more of clinical training and are certified with the NCCAOM, a nonprofit that regulates Oriental medicine credentials.
Be wary of other medical professionals that offer acupuncture. They may not be CAc or LAc credentialed and might be legally limited in what they can perform. If you’re looking for help finding the right practitioner, or determining if acupuncture is the best path to help you heal, schedule a 1:1 call with Adrienne. Her patient advocacy services can help you get to the root cause of your issues and start healing.
In terms of how much acupuncture costs and whether it’s covered by insurance, there’s not a simple answer. In general, you can expect acupuncture to run anywhere from $65-$120 per session, depending on your location and the practitioner’s experience. Acupuncture is covered by some insurance plans, but not all, and even plans that do cover acupuncture might only cover it for certain conditions. That means your best bet to know if you’re covered is to call your insurance company and ask (and make sure to also find out if you need a referral or if there’s a max dollar amount allowed for treatment!). If your insurance doesn’t cover acupuncture, there are a few ways to make it more affordable:
- If you have a Health Savings or Flexible Spending Account (HSA or FSA), acupuncture is likely covered with the right documentation.
- Try an acupuncture school, where discount treatment by an acupuncturist-in-training can be found. Most schools have a discount rate of around $40 for 1-2 hours. Check out the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine to find an accredited school near you.
- Try community acupuncture. This is best for less serious medical issues, and can be as low as $15 per session! The People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture has a helpful directory for finding affordable acupuncture near you.
Conclusion: The Acupuncture Facts You Should Take Away
There’s a lot to know about acupuncture. After all, it’s an ancient practice that has all sorts of different applications, methods, and results. But if you’re just looking to have a baseline knowledge of acupuncture facts and experience some of its benefits, here’s what you need to know:
- Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that is based on the idea that qi (vital life energy) needs to flow freely through our bodies. Acupuncture stimulates certain points in the body (acupoints) to clear blockages so that qi can flow freely and our body can function at an optimal level. The most common way of doing this is by inserting thin needles into the skin, but acupuncture can also be performed via other techniques, such as massage, heat therapy, cupping, and herbal applications.
- There’s strong scientific evidence that acupuncture can help with a variety of medical conditions, including anxiety, migraines, pain, arthritis, stroke, and more. There’s more limited but equally powerful evidence that it can also help with infertility, schizophrenia, obesity, and insomnia, among other issues.
- Acupuncture is commonly used to help boost fertility. There are a number of studies on acupuncture and fertility suggesting that the practice can help a woman get and stay pregnant, but the evidence is not conclusive. However, it seems likely that acupuncture can boost fertility by balancing hormones, increasing blood flow to the reproductive organs, reducing stress, and thickening the uterine lining.
- At an acupuncture appointment, your practitioner will get your medical history and concerns, then insert needles to various points based on your specific needs. The needles shouldn’t hurt, and will usually remain in for 5-30 minutes.
- For appointments, be sure to wear loose, comfortable clothing; avoid caffeine, alcohol, and sugar beforehand; write down your symptoms and current medications; and eat moderately both before and after.
- When looking for a practitioner, try to find a Licensed Acupuncturist (LAc), as they have the most rigorous training.
- Acupuncture sessions generally range in price from $65-$120. While some insurance plans cover acupuncture, many do not; call your insurance provider to find out if it’s covered for you. If you’re not covered, you can find affordable acupuncture by looking at acupuncture schools or community acupuncture.
Acupuncture is such a diverse practice that it can feel tough to pin down (see what we did there?), but with the acupuncture facts above, you should feel prepared to give this ancient natural therapy a try!
Have you tried acupuncture? What was your experience? Tell us in the comments below!