How Traditional Chinese Medicine Acupuncture Works

Acupuncture has been a staple of Chinese medicine for more than 2000 years. The traditional Chinese medicine acupuncture process sounds strange at first –inserting needles all over your body seems like an odd way to feel better –but acupuncture is a powerful tool when it comes to your wellbeing.

As an integrative physician, I’ve spent the last decade working with thousands of patients, many of whom have used traditional Chinese medicine acupuncture to improve their health and wellbeing. Acupuncture is one of my go-to strategies for managing pain, improving sleep, and relieving stress.

In this article, I’ll talk about how acupuncture works, the benefits of acupuncture, and what you can expect from an acupuncture session.

How Does Traditional Chinese Medicine Acupuncture Work?

In acupuncture, a trained professional (called an “acupuncturist”) inserts very thin needles into specific parts of your body. The needles stimulate different biological processes, ranging from hormone production to muscle tension.

For example, if you have tightness and muscle pain in your shoulder, an acupuncturist may insert needles into specific parts of your shoulder, back, and arm, gently stimulating your muscles and coaxing them into a relaxed state.

Alternatively, if you have trouble sleeping, your acupuncturist may insert needles into your forehead and neck. Doing so can tell your brain to produce more melatonin, your main sleep hormone, to help you sleep deeper and better .

Researchers aren’t quite clear on how acupuncture works. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe that acupuncture clears blocked energy pathways in the body. Western doctors propose that acupuncture affects neurohormonal activity, influencing hormone production in your brain and elsewhere to make you feel better.

Either way, a growing body of evidence suggests that traditional Chinese medicine acupuncture can support your health in several ways.

Acupuncture for Pain, Sleep, and Stress

I’ve worked with thousands of patients over the last decade, and many of them have responded very well to acupuncture. Acupuncture is one of my go-to tools for relieving three main health issues: pain, sleep, and stress. 


A large body of research supports using acupuncture for pain. A 2014 analysis of nearly 18,000 patients found that acupuncture reduces chronic pain, including muscle pain, arthritis, chronic headaches, and shoulder pain . 

A separate analysis from 2017 found that acupuncture relieves back pain, neck pain, migraines, and unexplained chronic pain . It also concluded that acupuncture works immediately for pain relief, as opposed to after several sessions or weeks. 

Headaches, migraines, muscle pain, and other types of chronic pain can all be debilitating. If you struggle with pain, it’s worth your time to at least try acupuncture. You’ll know quite quickly whether or not it helps you feel better. 


Acupuncture is excellent for sleep, too. People with anxiety and insomnia who did acupuncture saw a significant increase in their melatonin –the main hormone that controls your sleep quality . They also experienced higher-quality sleep, faster time falling asleep, more hours of sleep per night, and decreased overall anxiety.

Another study found that healthy people with trouble sleeping showed significant increases in sleep quality after doing acupuncture .

And if you have trouble with nighttime pain that keeps you up, acupuncture may be especially helpful. It can reduce pain and improve sleep quality, independently of one another.


If you’re stressed out or anxious, acupuncture may help. Several studies have found that anxious people see a marked reduction in their anxiety symptoms after doing acupuncture . 

College students and staff with high stress levels reported a significant decrease in stress after doing acupuncture regularly for several weeks, and the positive effects lasted for three months after the acupuncture stopped . 

Should you Try Traditional Chinese Medicine Acupuncture?

If you struggle with pain, trouble sleeping, or high-stress levels, acupuncture is worth a try. It may help you feel better quickly, and its effects can last a long time. I’m a big fan of using it in my practice and with my patients. 

Acupuncture can seem scary, but with a good traditional Chinese medicine acupuncturist, a session is more relaxing than stressful. Acupuncture needles go into very specific areas that typically avoid your nerves, which means acupuncture isn’t as painful as you might expect. In fact, many people report that acupuncture is deeply relaxing and enjoyable. 

Acupuncture fits perfectly into an overall healthy lifestyle. If you want to learn about how to build health and wellbeing in the other parts of your life, try taking my free Power Type Quiz. It will give you personalized diet and lifestyle tools — based on your unique biology — to help you become the best version of yourself.