Does Acupuncture Work?

(Image credit: Doglikehorse | Dreamstime)

Acupuncture, the traditional Chinese treatment of placing of needles on the body, is said cure people of many ailments and diseases. But does it work?

The mechanism by which acupuncture is said to work controlling energy fields in the body has not been validated. Scientists and doctors have never been able to find these so-called energies that acupuncturists are supposedly manipulating.

But proving or disproving that acupuncture works in controlled scientific tests can be very difficult. This is because of the placebo effect, in which a patient may report feeling better even thought they have not received any real treatment.

For example, if a researcher wants to study whether or not a drug is effective, he or she can test the drug against a non-working, identical sugar pill (placebo). The patient will not know whether he is getting the real drug or the placebo, thus helping control for the placebo effect .

But in the case of acupuncture, the patient knows whether or not he is being poked with needles. This is a fundamental problem in acupuncture research, made even more difficult by the fact that acupuncture is often used to treat subjective complaints, such as pain.

Acupuncture has been tested to see if it treats less subjective diseases and disorders, and so far the evidence is not good.

For example, recent research published in the journal Human Fertility found that acupuncture was worthless in aiding fertility. In fact, there's little or no evidence that acupuncture works for most diseases and conditions that people have claimed it treats including AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, infertility, smoking cessation , drug addiction, high blood pressure, flu and epilepsy.

Acupuncture might be useful for pain relief and anxiety reduction. That's it. For the millions who suffer from pain and anxiety , this is good newsexcept that pain and anxiety are exactly the top two complaints for which placebos are most effective.

The scientific evidence so far has shown that acupuncture is no more effective than placebo treatments, which in medical terms, suggests that acupuncture is not effective.

Got a question? Email it to Life's Little Mysteries and we'll try to answer it. Due to the volume of questions, we unfortunately can't reply individually, but we will publish answers to the most intriguing questions, so check back soon.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is