Acupuncture is an ancient healing art that goes back over 2,000 years. It is being researched more and more for its healing effects including some studies at National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The theory of acupuncture works on the simple idea of increasing energy in areas of low energy, and lowering energy in areas of high energy.

Acupuncture seems to stimulate the overall healing effects of the body.

Acupuncture is a complementary medical practice that entails stimulating certain points on the body, most often with a needle penetrating the skin, to alleviate pain or to help treat various health conditions. Other methods for stimulating acupuncture points include finger pressure, rubbing, edge tools, cupping, microcurrent and laser.

Numerous recent studies conducted by scientists in Europe and the United States have found that acupuncture is at least moderately effective in treating pain and nausea.

For example, one of the largest studies to date on acupuncture and chronic pain — a meta-analysis of 29 well-conducted studies involving nearly 18,000 patients and published in October 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine — found that acupuncture is effective for treating chronic pain and therefore is a reasonable referral option. The doctors wrote that "[s]ignificant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo.”

Another example is a 2013 review that found that acupuncture could reduce vomiting and nausea among patients receiving chemotherapy, according to Cancer Research UK.

Researchers are also conducting studies to determine if acupuncture is effective at treating depression, anxiety and a variety of cancer and cancer treatment-related symptoms. Dr. Ting Bao, an integrative medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, notes that "[r]ight now acupuncture is really used to alleviate cancer treatment-induced side effects or cancer-induced symptoms, but never to directly treat cancer," Bao told Live Science.

Acupuncture treatments carried out in hospitals and other health care facilities in the West today are not based on the same principles that were established in ancient Eastern texts, according to Bao. Western scientists have been trying to study the mechanism of acupuncture for years and have come up with several hypotheses, she said.

"One major hypothesis is that acupuncture works through neurohormonal pathways. Basically, you put the needle through specific points in the body and stimulate the nerve. The nerve actually sends signals to the brain, and the brain releases neural hormones such as beta-Endorphins. By doing that, the patient may feel euphoric, or happy, and this increases the pain threshold and they feel less pain," Bao said.

Another hypothesis is that acupuncture works by reducing pro-inflammatory markers, or proteins, in the body. Some animal and human studies suggest that by doing acupuncture, you can significantly decrease these pro-inflammatory markers — including TNF and IL-1β — which decreases inflammation and reduces pain, Bao said. 

Yet another hypothesis applies specifically to how acupuncture can be used to treat nerve damage, such as chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, a condition that often causes numbness or weakness in the feet and hands.

"The idea is that by putting the needle in, you stimulate the brain to secrete some nerve growth factor, and then that helps the nerve to regenerate," Bao said.

Research is ongoing into whether acupuncture can also help with other cancer treatment-related symptoms, including hot flashes, peripheral neuropathy and lymphedema (swelling of the arm or hand).

The World Health Organization maintains an extensive list of diseases and conditions (mostly pain related) possibly treatable by acupuncture. Many doctors now do not discourage their patients from receiving acupuncture when conventional medicine fails them or when convention treatment entails too many adverse side effects.

There is a growing body of research exploring whether acupuncture also can be used to treat depression, sleep disturbances and drug addiction. In general, however, acupuncture is considered complementary to conventional treatments, and it is likely most effective when implemented along with certain healthy lifestyle habits.

"Usually, when people are more health conscious, they pay attention to diet, they exercise more, they think about a mind-body approach to decrease stress, and they might also use acupuncture. Ideally, I think these things should all come together," Bao said.

Acupuncture seems to help with a variety of conditions due to its stimulation on the healing mechanisms of the body.

Acupuncture is not regulated at the state level in Oklahoma. This is why it is important to seek out practitioners who are already other physicians, have completed proper course work and/or have passed certification tests. Dr Michael Van Antwerp studied acupuncture in Kansas City with Dr Richard Yennie and has passed the NBCE Acupuncture Examination.