Neck pain is an extremely common problem that affects millions of people. Studies estimate up to two-thirds of adults deal with neck discomfort at some point during their lives. The pain can stem from numerous causes including muscle strain, injuries, poor posture, compressed nerves, arthritis, and more.
While conventional treatments like pain medication, physical therapy, chiropractic care, and surgery can provide relief, many patients are interested in complementary approaches like acupuncture. But can this ancient Chinese medicine technique actually help alleviate neck pain?
What Does The Research Say?
There have been numerous studies over the past couple decades analyzing acupuncture for neck pain relief. Many compare true acupuncture, where fine needles are inserted into specific acupuncture points, to “sham” acupuncture, where needles are placed randomly.
In 2016, the journal CMAJ published a review of 13 randomized controlled trials with over 1,800 total patients with chronic neck pain. Patients who received true acupuncture had slightly greater pain relief compared to sham acupuncture. On average, true acupuncture reduced pain scores by 1.4 points more on a 10 point scale.
Similar modest benefits were found in a 2020 clinical trial published in Medicine. The study followed 130 patients with chronic neck pain for 8 weeks. Those who received true acupuncture improved significantly more compared to the sham acupuncture group as measured by pain scores, range of motion, and disability questionnaires.
While acupuncture doesn’t seem to dramatically reduce neck pain, the evidence indicates it may provide mild to moderate relief, especially in the short term.
Acupuncture May Work Best When Combined With Other Therapies
Experts often recommend pursuing acupuncture as part of a comprehensive pain management plan that also includes physical therapy, massage, and exercise.
A 2018 study in Healthcare followed 60 patients with chronic neck pain. After 8 weeks of treatment, those who received both acupuncture and physical therapy improved significantly more than those who only received physical therapy.
This suggests the effects of acupuncture may be enhanced when combined with other therapies that help strengthen muscles, improve mobility, and activate pain-relieving chemicals in the body.
How Does Acupuncture Help Neck Pain?
Acupuncture is based on ancient Chinese medical philosophy that energy flows through meridians or pathways throughout the body. Blockages along these meridians can lead to pain and dysfunction. Inserting fine needles along specific points helps restore normal energy flow and stimulate healing.
Of course, modern medicine offers some alternate theories for how acupuncture may help reduce pain:
- Activates natural painkillers – Studies show acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins, serotonin, and other natural analgesics.
- Reduces inflammation – Acupuncture appears to reduce local and systemic inflammation linked to chronic pain.
- Improves blood flow – Increased circulation delivers oxygen and nutrients that facilitate healing.
- Triggers muscle relaxation – Acupuncture helps tense muscles unwind, relieving muscle spasms and tightness.
- Modulates pain signaling – Acupuncture may activate centers in the brain and spinal cord involved in dampening pain perception.
However, more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms behind acupuncture, especially for neck pain relief specifically.
Is Acupuncture Safe?
Acupuncture is considered very safe when performed correctly by a licensed and professionally-trained acupuncturist. Side effects are typically minor, like soreness, bruising, or bleeding at the needle sites. Serious complications like infections or organ punctures are extremely rare.
Those with bleeding disorders, pacemakers, or vulnerable health conditions should discuss risks with their doctor before pursuing acupuncture. It’s also essential to use an acupuncturist who uses single-use disposable needles to prevent infections.
How Many Acupuncture Sessions Are Needed?
Clinical trials analyzing acupuncture for neck pain have used anywhere from 6 to 15 sessions, with most showing benefits after 8 weeks of treatment. Many patients start experiencing pain relief within the first 2 to 4 sessions.
However, those with chronic long-standing neck pain may need more regular acupuncture maintenance sessions to sustain benefits over time. Discuss your specific situation with an experienced acupuncturist to determine an appropriate treatment plan.
Is Acupuncture Worth Trying For Neck Discomfort?
Given its safety profile and potential benefits, acupuncture is worth considering for those seeking an integrative approach to managing neck pain. It may provide mild to moderate relief, especially when combined with therapies like physical therapy, massage, heat/ice application, and targeted exercises.
However, acupuncture should not replace standard medical care when appropriate. Those with severe neck pain related to spinal injuries, compressed nerves, or other serious conditions require proper diagnosis and treatment from a medical doctor.
While some patients report dramatic relief from acupuncture, benefits are often subtle and incremental. It’s important to temper expectations and work closely with your acupuncturist when incorporating it into a neck pain management plan. Set realistic wellness goals and allow adequate time for results.