your natural self

Should You Try Acupuncture For Sleep, Pain, or PMS? Here’s What The Research Says

Published on July 25, 2023

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Acupuncture, a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is one of the most ancient systems of wellness.

Once (and in some cases still) considered “quackery” or “pseudo-science” in the West, acupuncture is now practiced in wellness centers, integrative medical clinics, and hospitals across North America.

It’s also been the subject of numerous studies focused on how it works and how it may help many different conditions, from fertility concerns to back pain.

In this article, we’ll share an overview of acupuncture, including: 

  • A brief history of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture
  • What to expect during an acupuncture treatment
  • How acupuncture works
  • And some of its most well-known health benefits based on research

    A Brief History and Overview of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture

    Acupuncture is a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a practice that’s been around for thousands of years.

    The first documentation describing an organized system of diagnosis and treatment that is now recognized as acupuncture is The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, dating from around 100 BCE.REF#2372

    Acupuncture continued to be developed and documented in texts over the centuries. It gradually became one of the standard therapies used in China, in addition to Chinese herbs, massage, diet, and moxibustion.

    Traditional Chinese Medicine is different from Western Medicine in that it relies on the movement of energy through acupuncture (more on this forthcoming), herbal formulas, meditation, and other wellness practices to achieve optimal health.

    Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches that the body has 2,000 acupuncture points connected by 12 pathways, also known as meridians. 

    These meridians act like energy pathways that facilitate the flow of “Qi” (pronounced “chee”) through the body.

    TCM practitioners believe Qi is the primary component of life and good health and that any blockages or disruption in this energy flow can cause disease or imbalance of body, mind, and spirit. 

    Acupuncture, in which hair-thin needles are inserted into specific acupuncture points, is used to optimize or re-direct the flow of Qi to specific meridians to restore health and balance.

    However, acupuncture isn’t the only modality within the scope of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

    Other practices include:

    • Acupressure: The stimulation of acupuncture points using pressure instead of needles.
    • Cupping: The practice of applying suction cups over acupuncture needles or points to enhance the movement of energy and circulation and promote detoxification. Before application, the suction cups may be coated with alcohol, lit on fire, and applied once the fire goes out.
    • Electroacupuncture: Low-level electrical impulses are used to stimulate acupuncture points.
    • Traditional Chinese herbs: Most acupuncturists recommend Traditional Chinese Herbal formulas in addition to acupuncture.
      • Qi Gong: An ancient Chinese martial arts practice similar to Tai Chi includes movement, meditation, breath awareness, self-massage, and sound to support mind-body awareness and well-being.
    • Moxibustion: The application of warmed mugwort to acupuncture points.

    An acupuncturist or Doctor of Oriental Medicine may employ some or all of these modalities depending on the needs and goals of the patient/client.

    What to Expect During an Acupuncture Treatment

    Acupuncture is performed by a licensed acupuncturist, Doctor of Oriental Medicine, or certain medical professionals licensed to practice acupuncture (this varies state-to-state).

    Although every session and acupuncturist differ, here’s a basic idea of what to expect.

    A session starts with a thorough intake, including health history, tongue diagnosis (in which the acupuncturist looks for signs of disease or imbalance by observing the tongue's shape, size, and color), and pulse taking.

    Some acupuncturists may recommend blood work, but most rely on Traditional Chinese diagnostics.

    Next, you’ll lie on a treatment table, and the acupuncturist will perform an acupuncture session by inserting hair-thin needles into various acupuncture points.

    Although the thought of a needle puncturing your skin may induce fears of pain, the needles are so thin most people only feel a tapping sensation.

    After that, all you need to do is lie there, relax for 20-30 minutes, and let the needles do their work. Most acupuncturists are masters at creating a relaxing and comfortable environment with pillows, bolsters, heated blankets, and relaxing music. 

    If you’re in a private room (as opposed to a community acupuncture space), you may also be given a bell to ring if you need your acupuncturist during the resting period. Acupuncturists typically treat multiple patients at one time and may not stay in the room during the rest period).

    Acupuncture sessions generally are very relaxing, and most people leave feeling restored and rested.

    How Acupuncture Works

    Acupuncture is the most studied alternative medicine on the planet.

    Yet, until recently, Qi theory—the movement and optimization of energy along the meridian pathways by using needles to restore health—was the only way to describe how acupuncture works.

    However, emerging research has shone new light on a more tangible mechanism behind the workings of acupuncture.

    New research from Korea on the Primo Vascular System has begun to validate the existence of the twelve meridian systems on which Traditional Chinese Medicine is based.REF#2373

    Researchers from the 2013 study entitled: “The Primo Vascular System as a new anatomical system” state:

    “The PVS (Primo Vascular System) is a previously unknown system that integrates the features of the cardiovascular, nervous, immune, and hormonal features. It also provides a physical substrate for the acupuncture points and meridians.”

    Thermal imaging has also provided clues into how acupuncture works on pain, cognitive, and sensory function.

    For example, neural imagining research has shown acupuncture changes parts of the brain that control and process pain. Other studies suggest similar results for pain and cognitive and sensory function.REF#2374 REF#2375 REF#2376

    These are just a few examples of emerging research on how acupuncture works beyond Qi theory.

    We’ll explore more in the following sections.

    The Benefits of Acupuncture For Supporting Health & Wellness

    Millions of people have used traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture to support well-being and address specific health concerns.

    Some of these concerns include:

    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Digestive complaints
    • Fatigue
    • Food cravings
    • Infertility
    • Insomnia
    • Headaches/Migraines
    • Hormonal health
    • Metabolic concerns
    • Menstrual cramps
    • Nausea
    • Pain
    • Postpartum complaints
    • PMS
    • Thyroid issues
    • Stress
    • Substance abuse
    • Weight loss

    Has acupuncture been proven to help all these conditions? 

    In some cases, yes. In some cases, maybe. And in others, the anecdotal evidence is more substantial.

    However, ample research supports the benefits of acupuncture for overall wellness, stress relief, and specific health concerns.

    7 Proven Benefits of Acupuncture For Various Health Concerns

    There are hundreds of studies aimed at validating and/or explaining the benefits of acupuncture for nearly every ailment, far too many to include in this article!

    Instead, we’ll look at the research behind the benefits of acupuncture for seven common health concerns.

    1: Acupuncture May Help With Various Types of Pain

    Living with pain, even mild to moderate pain like neck or back pain, can be a challenging and life-changing experience.

    Part of the challenge comes from the lack of safe, effective, and non-habit-forming solutions to combat the pain.

    This is why pain is one of the top reasons people seek acupuncture and why it’s now offered at many hospitals, medical centers, and integrative health clinics.

    Obviously, the anecdotal evidence is strong, but what does the science say?

    Here’s a small sampling of the research behind the use of acupuncture for pain:

    A 2017 systemic review and meta-analysis found real acupuncture showed statistically significantly greater pain relief effects compared to sham acupuncture and analgesic injection with no serious adverse events. REF#2377

    A 2019 update of an individual patient data meta-analysis also found acupuncture was effective for managing chronic pain, with treatment effects persisting over time. The authors noted: 

    “While factors in addition to the specific effects of needling at correct acupuncture point locations are important contributors to the treatment effect, decreases in pain following acupuncture cannot be explained solely in terms of placebo effects.”

    Auricular acupuncture, in which needles or ear seeds are placed on the outside of the ear, has also been shown helpful for pain.

    A systematic review and meta-analysis analyzed the results of 427 studies and found auricular acupuncture was effective 80% of the time for reducing chronic back pain in adults.REF#2378

    Per a 2019 review of the studies related to acupuncture for pain, controlled trials have shown acupuncture can help the following:REF#2379

    • Acute and chronic low back pain
    • Knee osteoarthritis
    • Headaches and migraines
    • Myofascial pain
    • Neck pain
    • And fibromyalgia

    There is also evidence acupuncture provides modest benefits for:

    • Chronic low back pain
    • Tension headache and chronic headache
    • Migraine headache prophylaxis
    • Myofascial pain

    The results and conclusions of these reviews are consistent with many studies validating acupuncture’s benefits for various types of pain.

    Talk to your healthcare practitioner if you want to try acupuncture for pain.

    2: Acupuncture May Help You Sleep

    Sleep deprivation has reached epidemic proportions, with 1 in 3 Americans not getting enough sleep (between 7 and 9 hours per night).REF#2380

    This is serious because sleep deprivation has been linked to:REF#2381 REF#2382

    • Anxiety
    • Cognitive decline
    • Depression
    • Heart Disease
    • Hormonal imbalances
    • Obesity
    • Metabolic syndrome
    • Pain

    Reduced immunity 

    If you struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, wake up feeling rested, and with sleep quality in general, acupuncture may help.

    A 2021 systemic review and meta-analysis examined eleven studies involving 775 patients with insomnia.REF#2383 They concluded that despite limited evidence, acupuncture was significantly associated with improvements in several objective sleep parameters, including:

    • Increases in total sleep time and sleep efficiency
    • Reductions in wake after sleep onset 
    • Reductions in the number of awakening times
    • Subjective sleep quantity and quality

    Acupuncture’s previously mentioned benefits for pain and its benefits on stress (which we’ll discuss next) may also play roles in its sleep benefits.

    3: Acupuncture Can Help With Stress

    Research has shown that stress contributes to many types of chronic diseases.REF#2384

    Yet stress is inescapable, so we must find healthy and nourishing ways to manage it.

    Acupuncture has long been used as a natural stress-buster in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which emphasizes the mind-body-spirit connection.

    Research has shown acupuncture may help reduce stress and the perception of stress and help with stress-related conditions, such as anxiety.REF#2385 REF#2386 REF#2387

    Many people who seek out acupuncture for specific health ailments are often surprised by its stress-relieving benefits.

    4: Acupuncture May Boost Fertility

    In Traditional Chinese Medicine, fertility issues are generally thought to be caused by disruptions in the vital balance and blockages in the Qi energy and blood circulation.

    By clearing and balancing those blockages using acupuncture, herbs, and other modalities, fertility in men and women can be restored.

    Fertility is a popular reason people try acupuncture, and it has been researched in men and women with promising results.

    For example, a 2022 review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found acupuncture provided benefits in the outcomes of women with infertility, with the number of acupuncture treatments as a potential, influential factor. 

    The authors called for studies with larger scales and better methodologies to verify their findings. 

    There are also studies suggesting the benefits of acupuncture when used in combination with other fertility therapies, such as IVF.REF#2388

    Acupuncture has also been shown to be potentially helpful for aspects of male infertility such as sperm quality and hormonal balance.REF#2389

    More research is needed to validate these findings and explain how acupuncture may help fertility. 

    However, given the encouraging results of these preliminary studies and the body of anecdotal and historical evidence, it may be a good option to discuss with your healthcare practitioner.

    5: Acupuncture May be Helpful for Menstrual Complaints

    Many women and people with uteruses experience menstrual complaints, such as cramping, mood swings, or disturbed sleep.

    These can range from mild to severe, and their cause can be challenging to pinpoint and treat.

    Fortunately, research suggests acupuncture can help relieve many issues related to menstruation, including:REF#2390

    There is also anecdotal and scientific evidence that certain Chinese herbs, such as Dong Quai REF#2391 and others, may also benefit menstruating people.REF#2392 More research is needed.

    6: Cosmetic Acupuncture Offers A Non-Toxic, Less-Invasive Option To Botox or Surgery

    What is cosmetic acupuncture? Also known as an acupuncture facelift or facial acupuncture, cosmetic acupuncture is an acupuncture treatment targeting specific points on the face, neck, and hairline that promote the flow of Qi, encourage circulation, and reduce signs of aging.

    Research has shown facial acupuncture may help:REF#2393 REF#2394 REF#2395 REF#2396

    • Reduce fine lines and wrinkles on the face and neck
    • Improve skin elasticity
    • Enhance the overall condition of the skin
    • Enhance facial blood circulation
    • Improve skin pigment
    • Enhance muscle thickness
    • Reduce brown spots

    The results of facial acupuncture are generally not permanent, and additional Chinese herbs or modalities may be recommended to address the cause of the skin issues (beyond aging), and follow-up procedures are required.

    However, some people report lasting results from just a few sessions.

    7. Acupuncture May Help With Menopausal Symptoms

    In Traditional Chinese Medicine and culture, regular acupuncture is a normal part of life—including during and after menopause.

    However, many Western women do not discover it until the annoying symptoms of menopause cause them to seek natural solutions.

    Studies have shown acupuncture may help with various symptoms of menopause, including:REF#2397 REF#2398 REF#2399 REF#2400

    • Hot flashes
    • Night sweats
    • Quality of life
    • Sleep issues/insomnia

    It is worth noting that some of the studies reviewed showed the same benefits from sham acupuncture and real acupuncture. 

    However, overall results suggest a positive benefit for menopausal women.

    Is Acupuncture Safe for Everyone?

    Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture have been the primary treatment modalities of the Chinese for thousands of years.

    Clinical trials, such as those shared in this article, have also shown the safety of acupuncture for various conditions.

    The most significant issues surrounding acupuncture safety come from misuse of needles, either not using sterile or disposable needles, incorrect disposal, or the use of permanent needles in Japanese acupuncture.REF#2401

    This can be addressed by ensuring your acupuncturist is licensed and is using disposable sterile needles. 

    You’ll know they are in compliance by asking and witnessing them opening a fresh package during your treatment and the presence of sharp disposal containers.

    However, some experts believe acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine should not be used as a replacement for traditional Western medicine and diagnostics.

    Therefore, consider talking to your healthcare practitioner before beginning acupuncture if you have a pre-existing condition.

    How To Find A Qualified Acupuncturist Near You

    If this article has gotten you interested in trying acupuncture, finding the right acupuncturist or Doctor of Oriental Medicine is critical.

    Before you start looking, it’s important to understand that the only people who can legally perform acupuncture in the United States are licensed acupuncturists or Doctors of Oriental Medicine. 

    In most states, these practitioners must also be board-certified by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine).

    Medical doctors may sometimes be authorized to perform acupuncture under their medical license with specific training or certifications, but this varies from state to state.

    Here are three ways to find a qualified acupuncturist:

    1. The NCCAOM Directory is an excellent place to search accredited and licensed acupuncturists by zip code.
    1. Accredited acupuncture schools offer free or low-cost clinics where you can receive acupuncture from an advanced student and/or instructor for minimal cost. A local search will show you what’s in your area.

    Your doctor or integrative healthcare practitioner may also be an excellent referral resource.Ask other health-minded friends. Often, there’s no better referral than that of a friend who’s found an excellent practitioner.


    • 1. , "A brief history of acupuncture", Rheumatology.
    • 2. , "The Primo Vascular System As A New Anatomical System", Journal of Acupuncture Meridian Studies..
    • 3. , "Neural mechanisms of acupuncture as revealed by fMRI studies", Autonomic Neuroscience..
    • 4. , "Inserting needles into the body: a meta-analysis of brain activity associated with acupuncture needle stimulation", Journal of Pain.
    • 5. , "Somatosensory cortical plasticity in carpal tunnel syndrome treated by acupuncture.", Human Brain Mapp..
    • 6. , "The Immediate Analgesic Effect of Acupuncture for Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis", Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
    • 7. , "Auricular acupuncture for chronic back pain in adults: a systematic review and meta analysis", Revista da Escola de Enfermagem da USP, REEUSP..
    • 8. , "Acupuncture for Pain", American Family Physician.
    • 9. , "1 in 3 Americans Don’t Get Enough Sleep", CDC Newsroom..
    • 10. , "10 Surprising Things That Can Spike Your Blood Sugar", CDC..
    • 11. , "Sleep Deprivation", Sleep Foundation..
    • 12. , "Can acupuncture improve objective sleep indices in patients with primary insomnia? A systematic review and meta-analysis", Sleep Medicine.
    • 13. , "Stress Contributes To A Range Of Chronic Diseases, Review Shows.", Carnegie Mellon University..
    • 14. , "Acupuncture and electroacupuncture for anxiety disorders: A systematic review of the clinical research", Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.
    • 15. , "Auricular acupuncture: a potential treatment for anxiety.", Anesthesia and Analgesia,.
    • 16. , "Effectiveness of Acupuncture Therapy on Stress in a Large Urban College Population", Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies..
    • 17. , "The effects of acupuncture on pregnancy outcomes of in vitro fertilization: a systematic review and meta-analysis", BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine..
    • 18. , "The efficacy and mechanism of acupuncture in the treatment of male infertility: A literature review", Frontiers in Endocrinology..
    • 19. , "Efficacy of Acupuncture in the Management of Primary Dysmenorrhea: A Randomized Controlled Trial", Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies..
    • 20. , "Angelica sinensis in China-A review of botanical profile, ethnopharmacology, phytochemistry and chemical analysis", Journal of Ethnopharmacology..
    • 21. , "A controlled trial of Chinese herbal medicine for premenstrual syndrome", Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology..
    • 22. , "Skin needling in the treatment of the aging neck", SkinMed.
    • 23. , "Effect of facial cosmetic acupuncture on facial elasticity: an open-label, single-arm pilot study", Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine..
    • 24. , "Acupuncture for cosmetic use: a systematic review of prospective studies", Journal of Cosmetic Medicine..
    • 25. , "Randomized clinical trial of facial acupuncture with or without body acupuncture for treatment of melasma", Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice..
    • 26. , "Acupuncture in Menopause (AIM) study: a pragmatic, randomized controlled trial", Menopause.
    • 27. , "Management of Menopause Symptoms with Acupuncture: An Umbrella Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis", Journal of Complementary Alternative Medicine.
    • 28. , "Effects of acupuncture on menopause-related symptoms and quality of life in women in natural menopause: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials", Menopause..
    • 29. , "Effect of acupuncture on insomnia in menopausal women: a study protocol for a randomized controlled trial", Trials.
    • 30. , "Is acupuncture safe: a systematic review of case reports", University of York.