K K Jain MD (Dr. Jain is a consultant in neurology and has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Originally released July 21, 1997; last updated August 8, 2019; expires August 8, 2022


This article reviews the physiological basis of acupuncture and evaluates its applications in various neurologic disorders. Acupuncture is used most frequently for relief of pain. Claims in some of the other conditions, such as stroke, cannot be confirmed by controlled clinical trials. Although used in practice, acupuncture still needs to be evaluated further by well-controlled clinical trials.

Key points


• Of the alternative methods, acupuncture is the most commonly integrated into conventional medical practice.


• Acupuncture is widely used for the treatment of neurologic disorders, particularly for the management of painful conditions.


• Action of acupuncture in modulating pain pathways has been demonstrated by brain imaging studies.


• Neurologic complications have been reported from the improper insertion of acupuncture needles.


• Further controlled and well-designed studies are needed to evaluate the efficacy of acupuncture for neurologic disorders.

Historical note and terminology

Acupuncture, as the derivation of the word implies (acus meaning needle; puncta meaning puncture), is the insertion of a needle into the skin of the human body. Acupuncture has been practiced in China for several thousand years. The earliest available written record is from 1800 BCE in the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine (Veith 1966). The ancient Chinese attributed disease to an imbalance between Yin (negative) and Yang (positive) forces. This belief exists for some even today. Acupuncture was supposed to restore the balance between these 2 forces. The procedure spread to Southeast Asia and Japan and then to Europe in the 1800s. Acupuncture was used for the relief of pain and muscular disability in England more than 125 years ago (Teale 1871). Osler was familiar with the procedure and considered it to be the most efficient treatment in acute cases of lumbago (Osler 1899). Osler had occasional failures as indicated by the following episode:


One of these consultations, however, was such an important one that preparations had to be made for it and Ogden (a student of Osler) was requisitioned as an assistant, for the patient was none other than old Peter Redpath, the wealthy Montreal sugar refiner who, being on Montreal General Hospital Board had hopes that the newly appointed physician might be able to cure him of an intractable lumbago. He arrived exhausted after mounting the stairs, in due course they proceeded to treat him by acupuncture. At each jab of a needle, the old gentleman is said to have ripped out a string of oaths, and in the end got up and hobbled out no better off in his pain, to Osler's great distress, for he had expected to give him immediate relief which, as he said, meant millions for McGill University (Cushing 1925).

Penfield visited China in 1962 and was invited by Chinese physicians to try acupuncture on a patient. He gave no definite opinions on this procedure (Penfield 1963). Ten years later, acupuncture as practiced in China was evaluated again, particularly for neurologic applications and the findings were recorded (Jain 1973). Since then, acupuncture has become popular in North America, and practitioners of this art, which include some physicians, are numerous. An estimated 10 million consumers use acupuncture each year in the United States. A survey of pain specialists regarding the use of nonpharmacologic therapies showed that 69% of them had referred patients for acupuncture and fewer than 20% for other therapies such as herbal, neural therapy, vitamin, and homeopathy (Berman and Bausell 2000).

A lack of scientific studies to prove or disprove acupuncture's claimed effects led to the initial rejection by many practitioners of Western scientific medicine. Now that the mechanisms can be partly explained in terms of neurophysiology, integration of acupuncture with conventional medicine is possible.

The relevance of acupuncture to the neurologist is as follows:


• Several patients referred to neurologists may have undergone acupuncture treatments. Some of these patients may be reluctant to disclose folk medical treatments to Western physicians; therefore, such information may have to be elicited by questioning.


• Some patients may request to be referred to an acupuncturist. The neurologist may have to decide if acupuncture could be useful for the patient in a situation where no relief has been obtained by conventional treatments.


• Neurologists should be familiar with rare neurologic complications of acupuncture.


• Mechanism of effect of acupuncture is a subject of neurophysiological research.

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