Acupuncture has been practiced, in one form or another, for at least 2,000 years. It’s just one tool in the traditional Chinese medicine toolkit, which teaches that a balanced qi (pronounced “chee”), or life energy, is the path to health. To nudge the body in the right direction, acupuncturists place thin needles of varying length along some of the hundreds of acupuncture points that run between your head and your toes.
These days, acupuncture is a global phenomenon, with millions of adherents around the world. But it’s still a controversial practice in the West, where many label it a pseudoscience. That hasn’t stopped some physicians from recommending a qi tune-up in concert with more mainstream medical treatment—or some insurance companies from reimbursing for the practice. Plus, patients love it.
Taken together, experts say the acupuncture market is set for rapid growth. Take this as your cue to get poked.
By the digits
$3.5 billion: How much Americans spend each year on acupuncture
1.5%: Percentage of Americans who have tried acupuncture to date
$141 billion: Projected worldwide revenue for acupuncture in 2023
$112: Median price of an initial acupuncture visit in the US
$308 million: Value of the acupuncture needles market in the US
29%: Percentage of Americans who have tried any form of complementary or alternative medicine alongside conventional treatment
183: Countries, out of 195, where acupuncture is offered
38,000: Licensed acupuncturists in the US
The blood(less) meridian
In traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, qi is believed to move along 12 or so meridians, as depicted here. Together, those meridians flow through an estimated 2,000 acupuncture points. Practitioners talk with patients about their pain, indigestion, allergies, and other problems—and then target the problem areas by inserting fine needles in corresponding acupuncture points. In a typical appointment, an acupuncturist will place 5 to 20 needles and leave them in for 15 or more minutes.
The million-dollar question
Does acupuncture actually work?
Plenty of people credit acupuncture with helping them to relieve stress, manage pain, improve their mood, and even super-charge their fertility. But biomedical research has been mixed. Acupuncture rarely causes harm, and in some studies it appears to improve patients’ quality of life. However, in many trials, it certainly looks more like a sham treatment.
That may mean that acupuncture is one way of harnessing the power of the placebo effect. While placebos have historically been derided as a kind of superficial magic trick, more recent research suggests it’s actually a powerful psychological tool. When people believe something can meaningfully improve their health, it just might.
There’s always room for more research, but insurance companies seem sufficiently persuaded. The majority of patients pay up front and out of pocket for acupuncture appointments, but some companies now reimburse policyholders later. Medicare Part B, one of the most notoriously hard-to-please insurers around, covers up to 12 acupuncture visits for chronic low back pain, and up to eight more treatments if patients show meaningful improvements from the treatment.
“We don’t treat diseases. We treat patterns and patients.… We try to balance the body to create an environment that’s not hospitable to your health issues.”—Galina Roofener, herbalist
How many acupuncture needles can you fit into the tip of a hypodermic needle?
Worried your answer will leave a mark? Scroll down to the bottom to find out.
Acupuncture is a treatment of choice even in the NFL. In 2022, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley said it was one of his favorite methods of recovery.
To acupuncture and beyond
Traditional Chinese medicine involves more than just needles. Here are other common strategies used to balance qi:
☕️ Cupping: Practitioners used glass or silicone cups to create suction on tissues along the same meridians as acupuncture. The goal is to pull blood to the surface, and promote healing.
🪨 Gua sha: By pulling a smooth-edged piece of jade or rose quartz across the face, people aim to release tension in their neck and face muscles and promote lymphatic drainage.
🌿 Herbs: Ginseng, codonopsis root, and schisandra berries are just a few of the many popular supplements used in TCM. Each herb has a specific purpose, but proponents claim together they can treat everything from aches and pains to cardiovascular issues.
💆♀️ Tui na: Unlike other forms of bodywork, which focus solely on musculoskeletal issues, traditional Chinese massage is also used to treat internal organs—and to enhance the vital energies of the body.
🤸♀️ Qigong: Comprised of eight basic moves, known as the “Pieces of the Brocade,” qigong is a movement practice meant to improve mobility and recenter the breath.
Becoming an acupuncturist isn’t always easy. Take New York State: First, apiring practitioners must complete 60 credits of general education. Then, they must attend a program in acupuncture at one of the 50 or so accredited colleges—typically a three-year-long commitment. And before they sit for their licensure exam, professionals must complete at least 650 supervised clinical hours.
Fortunately, acupuncture can be a lucrative career, with a mean annual wage of more than $82,000. Plus, there are always new ways for a TCM expert to expand their business—so long as you’re committed to continuing education. To provide acupuncture for pets, acupuncturists are encouraged to pursue an additional 140 hour certification.
Want to apply the tenets of acupuncture at home? This video, from the Cleveland Clinic, walks you through acupressure techniques you can try on yourself whenever you’re feeling stressed. No needle necessary.
Take me down this 🐰 hole!
Despite limited evidence, acupuncture is popular in some detox programs in the US. The reason, writes Olga Khazan in The Atlantic, is the long history of medical racism—and the specific activism of the Black Panther movement. Inspired by the “barefoot doctors” of Maoist China—“part-time farmers, part-time community health workers”—Panthers, including Tupac Shakur’s stepfather, evangelized the benefits of these and other alternative medical practices. The effects of their activism are still felt today.
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