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Acupuncture and MS: The Basic Facts

by Alan Bowling, MD, PhD and Tom Stewart
Learn more about what is known and not known about this complementary therapy.


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Acupuncture, which is one form of traditional Chinese medicine, is based on a theory of body functioning that involves the flow of energy — known as qi (pronounced chee) — through 14 pathways (called "meridians") throughout the body. According to the theories of Chinese medicine, disease results from an imbalance or disruption in the flow of energy and in the optimal balance between the opposite forces of "yin" and "yang."

Acupuncture involves stimulating specific locations on the skin, usually by inserting thin, disposable metallic needles into points along the meridians in the body in order to alter the flow of energy. Other methods of stimulating the skin may also be used, including finger pressure (also known as acupressure or shiatsu in Japan), cupping with small heated cups, electroacupuncture with electrically-stimulated needles, and moxibustion with smoldering fibers of an herb called "Asian mugwort." Of approximately 400 acupuncture points on the body, approximately 4 to 12 are stimulated in a single treatment session. It generally takes 6 to 10 sessions to determine if the treatment is going to be beneficial.

Safety & effectiveness

While acupuncture has been used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions, it is only since the 1970s that it has gained popularity in this country. To date, however, there have been no large-scale controlled clinical trials to evaluate the safety and efficacy of acupuncture in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). The few small studies that have been done suggest a possible benefit for fatigue, pain, mood and quality of life, but these findings await confirmation in larger studies.

Acupuncture may provide relief for some MS-related symptoms, including pain, spasticity, numbness and tingling, bladder problems, and depression. There is no evidence, however, that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of MS exacerbations or slow the progression of disability. If acupuncture is used, it should be as an addition to, rather than as a substitute for, standard medical treatments, and should only be used after consultation with one's physician or other MS healthcare professional. In addition, the treatment should be provided by a licensed acupuncturist. There are about 18,000 licensed practitioners in the United States.

In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened a 12-member panel to evaluate the numerous studies that had been done of acupuncture in other medical conditions. The panel concluded that acupuncture is a reasonable treatment option following a stroke, and for the management of headaches, facial pain, low back pain and neck pain. Additional studies have suggested that acupuncture might be beneficial for anxiety, depression, dizziness and urinary problems. Since none of the participants in these studies had MS, there is no way to know whether the benefits would be the same in people who have MS.

Side effects & risks

The NIH panel concluded from their review of the studies that acupuncture is a safe, well-tolerated treatment, especially if performed by a well-trained acupuncturist. The use of sterile, disposable needles is essential to avoid any risk of hepatitis or AIDS.

The possible impact of acupuncture on the body's immune system is not clear. Of the numerous studies that have been done in people with cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and AIDS, some suggested that the immune system was enhanced, while others showed an inhibiting effect or no effect at all. Since MS is associated with over-activity of some parts of the immune system, it will be important to clarify this issue before risks and benefits for people with MS can be clearly determined.

Helpful organizations A referral service that lists state-licensed acupuncturists.

909 North Sepulveda Boulevard, 11th Floor, El Segundo, CA 90245
Call 877-630-3600 or website

American Academy of Medical Acupuncture — The academy is a professional society representing 1,300 physicians (MDs and DOs) across North America who have incorporated acupuncture into their traditional medical practice. Search their database of Acupuncture physicians.

2512 Artesia Blvd, Ste 200, Redondo Beach, CA 90278
Call 310-379-8261 or website

National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine — The NCCAOM Find a Practitioner Directory is designed to be used by the public to find an NCCAOM certified practitioner.

76 South Laura St., Ste. 1290, Jacksonville, FL 32202
Call 904-598-1005 or website

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)

9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892
Call 888-644-6226 or website
Online information specifically about acupuncture

Additional resources

On Point- Momentum article