This method has been used to quit smoking, but there is little evidence to show that it works. Acupuncture for smoking is usually done on certain parts of the ears.

What is the history behind it?

Acupuncture began more than 2,000 years ago and is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine (also called Oriental Medicine). Originally, 365 acupoints were identified, corresponding to the number of days in a year. Over time, the number of acupoints grew to more than 2,000. Traditional acupuncture needles were made of bone, stone, or metal, including silver and gold. Modern acupuncture needles are made of very thin sterile stainless steel and are disposable. In 1996, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of acupuncture needles by licensed practitioners. By law, needles must be labeled for one-time use only to prevent infection and the transmission of germs.

In China, acupuncture is commonly accepted as a treatment for many diseases. Acupuncture has also become quite popular in the United States and Europe, where the technique is mainly used to control pain and relieve symptoms of disease, such as nausea caused by chemotherapy, but not to cure the disease itself.

In 2010, there are an estimated 18,000 licensed acupuncturists in the United States. More than 40 states have set up training standards for licensing or certification to practice acupuncture. There are also about 8,000 medical doctors in the United States who have been trained to practice acupuncture. Medicare does not cover acupuncture, but it is covered by some private health insurance plans and HMOs.

What is the evidence?

Available scientific evidence does not support claims that acupuncture is an effective treatment for cancer. Still, it appears it may be useful as a complementary method for relieving some symptoms related to cancer and other conditions.

Acupuncture has been the subject of many clinical studies and has been tested as treatment for a wide range of conditions. At this time, there is sound scientific support for acupuncture for 2 conditions: nausea/vomiting and headaches.

A 2006 analysis of 11 studies looked at the effect of acupuncture in reducing nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy. The report suggested that acupuncture may reduce the vomiting that occurs shortly after chemotherapy is given, even though it had little effect on nausea. It also did not seem to help with delayed vomiting. There is also some evidence that acupuncture may lessen the need for pain medicine. A study of headache sufferers compared acupuncture with standard medical treatment. Those treated with acupuncture used less pain medicines and missed fewer work days.

Some studies suggest that acupuncture may help relieve mouth dryness (xerostomia) in patients whose salivary glands were damaged as a side effect of radiation therapy. It has also been used to relieve hot flashes, but most studies found that acupuncture using traditional acupuncture points is no more effective than sham (placebo) acupuncture. Still, some practitioners feel that it is worth trying when men or women getting hormone therapy for prostate or breast cancer have severe hot flashes that persist after trying other treatments.

Acupuncture remains a subject of research interest. But some recent studies of acupuncture have had mixed or uncertain results. Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to come up with good control procedures—one that convincingly mimics acupuncture—for scientific comparisons.

A number of studies have looked at the effectiveness of acupuncture in helping smokers quit. Experts reviewed studies in which acupuncture was used to help reduce withdrawal symptoms from quitting smoking. When the studies were analyzed as a group, the evidence suggested that sham acupuncture (placebo) worked as well as real acupuncture for smoking cessation. Similar results were found when studies of acupuncture for cocaine withdrawal were analyzed.

Although the scientific evidence is not strong, acupuncture may prove to be useful by itself or when combined with mainstream therapies to treat headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma, and to help in the rehabilitation of stroke patients. Further research is needed in these areas.

Controlled clinical studies of electroacupuncture have suggested that it may help some people with pain after surgery, some of the nausea related to chemotherapy, and pain from kidney stones. However, it was found ineffective in a study that compared it to conventional anesthesia during in vitro fertilization.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

When done by a trained professional, acupuncture is generally considered safe. Relatively few complications have been reported, but there is a risk that a patient may be harmed if the acupuncturist is not well trained.

Traditional needle acupuncture can cause dizziness, fainting, local bleeding or bruising, internal bleeding, convulsions, dermatitis, nerve damage, and increased pain. Rarely, punctured lungs have happened, resulting in a few deaths. Traditional acupuncture also poses risks such as infection from contaminated needles or improper delivery of treatment. In the United States, sterile, single-use needles are required by law. This minimizes the risk of infection from diseases like hepatitis B or C, as well as the risk of local infection where the needle was put into the skin.

People who are taking anticoagulants (blood thinners) may have bleeding problems with traditional needle acupuncture. People with cardiac pacemakers, infusion pumps, or other electrical devices should avoid electroacupuncture.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer, may have serious health consequences.