Acupuncture / Restore

Acupuncture for Neuropathy: Does it Help Nerve Pain?

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Written by Mona Freund
Reviewed by Kate Mills, BSN, RN & Naika Apeakorang, ND, LAc.

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If you’re someone who deals with nerve pain, the thought of treating it by sticking sharp needles into your skin may seem a little (or a lot) counterintuitive. But consider switching the words “sharp needles in skin” with another, considerably more gentle word: “acupuncture.” This is something that debatably sounds better, and definitely has science-based research to back up its effectiveness in treating neuropathy. 

Semantics aside, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Luckily for you, we read through the science and asked experienced practitioners if and how acupuncture can help soothe nerve pain.

Here’s what you need to know about the effects of acupuncture on the body, what to expect from a treatment session, and home remedies that can enhance the benefits of your treatment. As with all medical treatments, talk with your doctor for personalized advice before starting acupuncture treatment.

What Is Neuropathy?

Stock photo: A hand sticking a needle into a dummy with numbered dots all over it, charting the nervous system.
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Peripheral neuropathy (PN) icon-trusted-source Mayo Clinic “Peripheral neuropathy” View Source is dysfunction or damage of the peripheral nervous system. Your peripheral nervous system consists of the nerves that connect your brain and spinal cord with all other body parts. Your nervous system sends signals through your body when you feel sensations, like your dog licking your hand or burning your tongue on the tea you should’ve let cool off a bit. 

For people who have a damaged or dysfunctional peripheral nervous system, these sensations aren’t where it ends. The condition can cause weakness, numbness, or pain in the hands and feet caused by the disruption in the nervous system. PN can also impact circulation and digestion.

One of the most common causes of neuropathy is diabetes, but it can also be hereditary or caused by infections, injuries, or metabolic problems. People who’ve undergone chemotherapy also often experience PN as a result of their treatment. 

While it’s unlikely for most patients to completely eradicate PN, it may be treated with a healthy diet, regular exercise, and (maybe) acupuncture.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an ancient form of Traditional Chinese medicine in which the patient’s skin is penetrated with very thin needles to stimulate the nervous system. These needles are sterilized and one-time use only. The practice shouldn’t be extremely painful, but it may sometimes cause a dull and heavy aching sensation—practitioners call this feeling “de qi icon-trusted-source NIH—National Cancer Institute “de qi sensation” View Source .” More research is needed icon-trusted-source PubMed Central “Acupuncture for neuropathic pain in adults” View Source , but studies show that acupuncture can have a positive effect icon-trusted-source PubMed.gov “Acupuncture treatment improves nerve conduction in peripheral neuropathy” View Source on the pain levels of patients with neuropathy.

Acupuncture is used to treat a variety of conditions and diseases like migraines, menstrual cramps, dental pain, muscle pain, or nerve pain—including neuropathy.

“Acupuncture works to redirect energy, or Qi, within the body across meridians, or energy channels, in order to balance your internal energy, curing ailments, and providing relief,” says licensed medical acupuncturist Jamie Bacharach, Dipl.Ac, Head of Practice at Acupuncture Jerusalem.  “In more scientific terms, acupuncture can promote healthy blood flow and nerve regeneration.”

But it’s not just about sticking a few metallic needles in your body.

“It’s not the poke, it’s the twist,” says licensed acupuncturist Douglas Bertram, CEO and founder of Structural Elements. “When placing an acupuncture needle, the provider [may] twist the needle during insertion. The twisting of the needle will wrap the collagen fibers of the connective tissue around the shaft of the needle. As the tissue winds around the needle, it causes increased mechanical stimulation to the connective tissue cells. Think of a fork in a plate of spaghetti, the noodles winding around the fork. In the body it’s the connective tissue, or fascia icon-trusted-source Johns Hopkins Medicine “Muscle Pain: It May Actually Be Your Fascia” View Source , that is winding around the needle.”

The Nessie Tip

If you want to try out acupuncture, find an experienced acupuncturist. Not all states require a license to practice acupuncture, but you can look for a trustworthy acupuncturist on the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine website.

What’s Sham Acupuncture?

You may have stumbled upon the term “sham acupuncture icon-trusted-source PubMed.gov “Sham acupuncture may be as efficacious as true acupuncture: a systematic review of clinical trials” View Source ” before. This isn’t a real treatment—it’s the sugar pill equivalent of acupuncture. It’s also called placebo acupuncture and is exclusively used in scientific studies as a control treatment. Basically, instead of inserting needles in traditional acupuncture spots, they’re just placed in “non-points.”

If you want a similar effect without the needles, you can try an acupressure pillow. This involves lying on a pillow covered in hundreds of sharp, tiny spikes to provide muscle relief.

Does Acupuncture Help With Neuropathy?

Acupuncture may be an option icon-trusted-source PubMed.gov “Acupuncture treatment improves nerve conduction in peripheral neuropathy” View Source to treat the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. 

In Traditional Chinese medicine, neuropathy is the result of a disruption or imbalance in a person’s qi (or vital energy within and around us, pronounced “chee”). Acupuncture may help reset your qi: “[When] acupuncture needles are inserted during treatment, they stimulate pressure (or energy) points which trigger [the] release of endorphins, a natural pain relief chemical. While this effect will not cure neuropathy, it can provide tremendous and often long-lasting relief to people suffering from it,” Bacharach says.

There are some studies on the effectiveness of acupuncture for neuropathy treatment—many of which show positive results—but not enough that include control groups icon-trusted-source PubMed.gov “Acupuncture for the Treatment of Peripheral Neuropathy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” View Source

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What Is Qi?
Qi (pronounced "chee"): A term used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to define vital energy within and around us. According to this philosophy, people with balanced qi tend to be healthier and happier.
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The amount of relief a patient will feel depends on a variety of factors. These include:

  • The patient’s age
  • How long they’ve been experiencing PN
  • The percent sensory loss (how badly they’re experiencing PN)
  • The person’s lifestyle (diet, exercise regimen, etc.)

These factors will also determine the treatment schedule and type. Typically, acupuncture sessions last between 15 minutes to an hour and a half. Patients may receive treatment multiple times per week as they start their process. Eventually, they may scale down to seeing their acupuncturist once a week, every other week, or on a monthly basis, possibly until treatment is no longer needed at all.

Some patients may feel instant relief during the procedure and begin to feel better after a few weeks of treatment. For others, it can take several months before symptoms start to fade. 

You should get a sense of whether or not acupuncture is working for you within three to five sessions, according to Dr. Tom Ingegno, DACM, LAc, Doctor of Acupuncture/Clinical Director at Charm City Integrative Health.

What Does Acupuncture Treatment Look Like?

Much like the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy, acupuncture treatment looks different for everyone. Before your first session starts, your acupuncturist may ask questions about:

  • The pain level you’re experiencing
  • What kind of pain you’re feeling (numbness, tingling, sharp pains, etc.)
  • How long you’ve been dealing with pain
  • If and how you’ve been treating the pain (medication, other forms of treatment, etc.)
  • If you have any underlying conditions
  • What your diet looks like
  • Whether you exercise regularly

After the assessment, the acupuncturist will insert metallic needles into meridians of the body, which stretch from head to toe. They may place needles in spots you weren’t necessarily expecting—for example, someone experiencing pain in their fingers may also receive needles in their forearms. Depending on your pain level and the acupuncturist, they will use anywhere between six and 40 needles to treat you.

Stock Photo: close-up of acupuncture needles stuck into someone's back
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At the point where needles break through your skin, you may feel a warm or itchy sensation—in some cases, you’ll notice a feeling in other parts of your body being triggered by the acupuncture point. That’s your nervous system noticing the effect of the needles! In Chinese medicine different points on the body correspond to specific acupuncture points along the meridians or energetic channels.

The needles stay in your skin for the duration of the appointment, which may vary anywhere between 15 minutes and up to 90 minutes. If you’re scheduled for a longer appointment, there’s a good chance you’ll get two types of treatment during your session:

  • Manual acupuncture: During this kind of treatment, your practitioner will insert and manually twist the needles to get your qi flowing. 
  • Electroacupuncture: During this modern variation, your practitioner will attach small electrodes to the acupuncture needles. The electric stimulus you feel shouldn’t be painful, so communicate with your practitioner while they set you up. Research icon-trusted-source PubMed.gov “Electroacupuncture versus manual acupuncture for knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled pilot trial” View Source with control groups suggests that electroacupuncture has a stronger impact on the effectiveness of the treatment, but it’s not by a significant margin (meaning that it may just be a coincidence).

By the way, many patients describe their acupuncture sessions as a relaxing experience—some even fall asleep during the process. So leave your worries behind and close your eyes to get the most of the experience.

What Should I Do After My Acupuncture Treatment Session?

To reap the full benefits of your acupuncture session, take it easy for 24 hours after your treatment. 

There’s no need to take the day off work, but avoid lifting weights or going out on the town with your friends. Drink plenty of water, nourish your body with healthy meals, and rest. 

Avoid icing pain points. Use a heat pack instead so you don’t mess with your body’s energy flow. You can even massage the pressure points a little if it helps.

Can Acupuncture Make Nerve Pain Worse?

If you’re seeing a skilled acupuncturist, your nerve pain should not get worse after your session. But if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort during or after your treatment, talk to your acupuncturist. You may need fewer needles or an adjusted treatment time. If you feel like your practitioner using too much pressure or needles that are causing you pain, you may want to look for a new one 

Home Remedies for Nerve Pain Treatment

Stock photo: A man and woman chilling in a sauna.
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Other than prescribed medication and acupuncture, there are a few home remedies you can try to soothe your peripheral neuropathy symptoms:

  • Modify your diet. If you’re used to eating a lot of fatty foods or sweets, making dietary changes can impact the intensity of your nerve pain. Licensed acupuncturist Christina Burns advises patients to try an anti-inflammatory diet: “Quitting sugar, gluten, dairy, and corn are very helpful in reducing other inflammation icon-trusted-source UChicago Medicine “What foods cause or reduce inflammation?” View Source .”
  • Take your supplements. Besides changing your diet, you can also use supplements icon-trusted-source Mayo Clinic “Diabetic neuropathy: Can dietary supplements help?” View Source to give your body what it needs. According to Burns, “[sometimes] supplements like omega-three fish oil or minerals like magnesium can be beneficial.”
  • Massage your feet and hands. Whether you ask a loved one, pay a professional, or do it yourself, gently massaging your hands and feet can reduce your pain. Use a good quality massage oil or try essential oils like lavender so you can fully relax. 
  • Turn up the heat. Just as acupuncture can restore the energy flow in your body, hot baths or other types of heat treatment icon-trusted-source ScienceDirect “Effect of exposure to sauna heat on neuropathic and rheumatoid pain” View Source (heated pillows, sauna, etc.) can soothe nerve pain. By raising your core body temperature, your blood vessels expand and allow blood to flow to the injured or damaged nerves in your body.
  • Improve your sleep routine. Sleep doesn’t always come easily, especially if you’re dealing with constant, nagging pain. But there may be some things you can do to make it more accessible—avoid caffeine at night, cut screen time a few hours before bed, and set a consistent bedtime. A good night’s rest does wonders for almost anything, including nerve pain.
  • Exercise your mind and body. If your nerve pain is preventing you from participating in workout classes, try gentler forms of exercise. Go for regular walks, try yoga, or see if meditation makes you feel better.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol dehydrates your body and can lead to muscle and nerve aches. If you notice increased discomfort after imbibing, consider lowering your alcohol consumption.

“An experienced Chinese Medicine Practitioner and Acupuncturist should be able to prescribe an appropriate Chinese Herbal Remedy for relief from neuropathy symptoms. While this may not provide total relief, when taken in conjunction with acupuncture treatments, it can provide improved results,” says Bacharach.

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