Author: Zawn Villines
Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine where a practitioner inserts needles into specific acupuncture points to promote the flow of energy. Some people use acupuncture for neck pain, and a small number of studies suggest it may help.
Although anecdotal evidence supports the use of acupuncture for pain relief, many studies on acupuncture for neck pain are small, poorly designed, or show only small improvements. For this reason, acupuncture remains a form of alternative and complementary medicine.
More research might reveal how acupuncture works, show how effective it is, and explain when it should be used. At present, the safest option for people who want to treat their neck pain with acupuncture is to use it as a complementary therapy alongside first-line treatments.
Read on to learn about how people use acupuncture for neck pain as well as the side effects, risks, and more.
For more than 3,000 years, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have used acupuncture to manage a variety of ailments.
Inserting an acupuncture needle causes an increase in circulation, a reduction of inflammation, and a release of neurochemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin. This can relieve pain and promote relaxation.
During acupuncture treatment for neck pain, a practitioner determines which points need stimulation based on a person’s symptoms, health history, and whether they have made progress with prior acupuncture sessions.
Some practitioners combine acupuncture with other treatments. These may include massage, aromatherapy, and relaxation techniques.
It is important to note that the needles only penetrate the outer layer of skin, so they are usually not painful.
Does it work?
Emerging evidence suggests that acupuncture for neck pain may be effective.
A 2020 meta-analysis found moderate evidence to support the use of acupuncture for neck pain. The analysis included six randomized controlled trials, all of which reported a reduction in neck pain compared to a placebo and no treatment.
The analysis found few side effects of acupuncture, but a major limitation was inconsistency between the studies in reporting results. Therefore, it is hard to know if and how much the treatment can relieve pain.
A 2021 paper highlights prior research on acupuncture as well as other complementary therapies, such as dry needling and cupping. It concluded that all three likely offer benefits.
One of the cited systematic reviews looked at many different types of pain. It found that acupuncture participants reported lower pain intensity, disability, and functioning compared to no treatment. However, the differences between acupuncture and the placebo were small or nonexistent.
This suggests that at least some of the benefits of acupuncture might be due to the placebo effect.
Cervical spondylosis, a degenerative disease affecting the spinal discs, is a relatively common source of neck pain. A 2021 study assessed acupuncture for the treatment of the condition. Participants underwent either optimized, shallow, or placebo acupuncture for 4 weeks.
At the end of the study, participants with optimized acupuncture reported more pain relief than those in the shallow and fake groups. After 16 weeks, there were statistically significant differences between the groups.
This suggests not only that acupuncture can help with the neck pain of spondylosis, but also that the effects are not merely due to a placebo.
Additionally, it is important to note that “sham” acupuncture is frequently used to test the placebo effect, and this practice is largely disregarded.
A large 2012 study evaluated the differences between true and sham acupuncture and concluded that true acupuncture was more effective than the placebo effect. It found that acupuncture could be effective in treating chronic pain.
Side effects from acupuncture are generally mild. They may include:
- pain during the session
- tenderness at the site of insertion
Acupuncture is generally low risk. However, there is a small chance of serious health effects.
This is more likely if the acupuncture practitioner uses dirty needles or improper techniques. Licensed acupuncturists are required to use single-use, disposable needles and should never reuse needles.
These risks include:
- injury to surrounding areas, including blood vessels
- excessive bleeding
- transmission of bloodborne diseases
- allergic reactions to chemicals
For this reason, it is very important to choose a reputable, licensed acupuncture practitioner.
Additionally, it is crucial to note that acupuncture is not a substitute for medical care. A person who treats neck pain solely with acupuncture — without seeking medical guidance — may miss serious diagnoses. Over time, this can lead to serious harm and injury.
The safest option is to contact a doctor for a diagnosis. If a person wants to try acupuncture, they can combine it with treatment options that a doctor recommends.
Massage and acupuncture work through different mechanisms. During the massage, a therapist stimulates injured tissue, which can relieve pain.
Research on massage therapy for neck pain suggests the benefits are mostly short term. This does not mean that massage does not work, but it does indicate that pain relief is not long lasting.
Recent research has not directly compared massage to acupuncture for neck pain.
In general, acupuncture treatment sessions usually cost between $50 and $150. The cost of acupuncture varies significantly depending on location.
In some cases, a person’s health insurance may cover acupuncture. A person might need preapproval for a session, or they may have to submit a bill to their insurer for reimbursement.
Acupuncture may improve neck pain, but it is a complementary therapy that people should use in addition to first-line treatments.
Emerging research suggests acupuncture may be effective but has not proven that it works.
People who want to try acupuncture should consider using it alongside other treatments to get the best results. They should also take care to choose a reputable, licensed professional.