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Alternative medicine

What is acupuncture?

acu.jpgAcupuncture is the practice of inserting very thin metal needles into the skin to stimulate points on the body. Sometimes electrical current is then passed through the needles.  Acupuncture has been used to treat medical conditions and to promote health for thousands of years in China and other parts of Asia. In the United States, acupuncture is a part of complementary and alternative medicine.

Hall Health Center offers acupuncture through its Physical Therapy clinic for orthopedic pain (pain associated with bones, muscles, ligaments or connective tissue) and sports injuries.

What does the research tell us about acupuncture?

Millions of Americans use acupuncture to manage chronic conditions and treat new ones, as well as to improve overall health.  However, the science behind acupuncture is controversial because it is difficult to design large, rigorous studies to test its effectiveness. When investigating whether a treatment method works, it is important to have a "control" group as a basis for comparison. In the case of acupuncture, this may entail comparing true acupuncture to "sham" treatments to see whether any observed improvement can be explained by the placebo effect.

Another aspect of the debate around acupuncture is known as the "nocebo" effect, the converse of the placebo phenomenon. There is some evidence that any skepticism or fear that acupuncture patients have about the practice negates any positive outcomes.

Chronic musculoskeletal pain

Studies have investigated whether acupuncture is effective in reducing pain associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and low-back, neck and knee pain. Some of this research has found that acupuncture provides pain relief, with study participants who received actual treatment reporting less pain than those of who received simulated treatment. A 2012 study described in this New York Times article reviewed 27 studies that met standards of scientific rigor and concluded that there is strong evidence that acupuncture can help with chronic pain.

Are there side effects and risks to acupuncture treatment?

Few problems have been reported associated with acupuncture treatment. However, needles that are improperly sterilized or inserted could result in infection or organ puncture. Your acupuncture practitioner should open a new set of packaged needles at each treatment and use alcohol wipes on your skin prior to needle insertion.

Acupuncture needles are regulated by the federal government; they must be sterile, non-toxic and labeled for single use.

What to expect from a visit to an acupuncturist

Just like a provider of Western medicine, your acupuncture provider should take care to learn about your medical history and concerns. Your first visit should include questions about your health and health-related behavior. You will also be asked for the names and dosages of any medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.

Your acupuncture provider will then describe the recommended course of treatment and prepare sterilized needles for insertion. You may be asked to fully or partially disrobe. Needles are inserted quickly, and most people report feeling little to no pain. The provider will make sure you feel comfortable and then may leave to room for some time. You might feel energized or relaxed by the treatment.

Your provider may ask you to return for repeated treatments.

Insurance and acupuncture

Many health insurance plans provide coverage of acupuncture visits, including UW's Graduate Assistant Insurance Program (GAIP) and most UW employee health plans. Contact your insurance company to inquire if you have coverage and which providers are in network. If you do not have coverage and cost is a concern, you may be able to find an acupuncturist outside of the University of Washington medical system who offers services on a sliding fee scale based on income.

Additional resources


yoga.jpgComplementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are health care therapies that are not used by practitioners of conventional (Western) medicine. These remedies are sometimes excluded from standard practice due to lack of evidence.

What do complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) include?

There are several broad categories that CAM fall into. Some can be in more than one of these categories.

Healing systems

Healing systems are both practice and theories to heal the body. These focus on a way of life. Some are based on traditional practices of individual cultures.

Examples include:

  • Ayurveda: Traditionally from India, this system highlights mind, body and spiritual wellness. This system includes a healthy diet, exercise, meditation, herbs, massage, exposure to sunlight, and breathing techniques.
  • Homeopathy: In this Western healing philosophy, practitioners use small doses of prepared plant extracts to stimulate the body's healing.
  • Naturopathy: This western system focuses on correcting the body's processes. Therapy can include diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicine, hydrotherapy, spinal and soft tissue manipulation, energy therapy, light therapy, and counseling.

Mind-body connections

The core belief of this philosophy is that when your mind and body are in harmony, you will have better health. Some of these are accepted as standard treatments. Examples of mind and body treatments include:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Prayer
  • Hypnosis
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Art therapy

Biological treatment

This includes natural and biological products to promote health. These typically include herbal treatments, special diets, and individual biological treatment.

Important points to consider about biological CAM treatments:

  • Natural is not the same thing as safe. Some herbs can be toxic if taken incorrectly. Chemicals and fillers are sometimes added to supplements and herbs.
  • Individuals respond differently. The effects on pregnancy and child development are unknown.
  • Herbal and dietary supplements can interact with other drugs and cause other side effects. Always tell your health care provider what supplements you are using.  For example, the use of St. John's Wort, an herbal remedy used to treat depression, can make oral contraceptives (birth control pills) less effective.
  • Safety. The safety of over-the-counter CAM treatments, such as dietary supplements, depends on the:
    • Ingredients and their origins.
    • Quality of manufacturing. Over the counter dietary supplements are approved by the FDA, but are not be tested by the FDA prior to marketing. Products cannot be labeled with claims to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent unless the product passes through the same approval processes as any new drug. Products that make such claims are illegally sold.


Practitioners promote healing through manipulation and movement of the body.

  • Chiropracty is the focus on the relationship between the structure of the body, its function and its effect on the health of the individual.
  • Massage is the focus on returning soft tissues, such as muscles, to normal.
  • Osteopathy is the focus on the interaction between body systems and works to restore balance of these systems.


Practitioners of energy healing believe there are energies that flow in the body or external energy fields. Illness may occur when the body's energy is blocked or out of balance. Each variety of energy therapy has a unique set of beliefs about how to correct this energy.

Examples include:

  • Therapeutic touch: From the tradition of "laying-on of hands," the practitioner's healing force balances the energies and improves the healing abilities of the body.
  • Reiki: A Japanese tradition focused on channeling spiritual energy to improve circulation and immunity.
  • Qigong: A traditional oriental medicine, involving meditation, movement and controlled breathing to enhance the flow of energy.
  • Acupuncture: A traditional Chinese medicine that restores and maintains health by stimulating specific energy points on the body.

How do I decide if it is real or bogus?

Before beginning any new therapy, it is important to be well-informed. This is especially important with complementary and alternative medicines. Little is known about many of these treatments, and some can cause adverse side effects.

  • Learn about scientific studies that have been done on the therapy. While stories can be intriguing, they do not guarantee that a CAM is safe. As interest in CAM continues to grow, more scientific studies are being done to look at effectiveness and risks.
  • Talk to your health care provider. Tell them what therapy you are considering and what you know of the risks and the benefits. Be prepared to ask your health care provider any additional questions you have about the therapy.  Be sure to mention
  • Use the internet to search medical libraries and databases for information.

Considering costs

Most insurance companies cover some of these services, such as acupuncture or visits with a certified naturopath (ND). To find out for sure, you will need to contact your insurance company. Depending on the treatment there may be a minimum number of sessions required to fully benefit from the therapy.

Complementary and alternative medicine practitioners

Like any health care practitioner, complementary and alternative medical practitioners should have certification and licenses. Make sure the practitioner you are considering has the proper training. Selecting a CAM provider.

Additional information

Hall Health Center offers acupuncture for musculoskeletal pain.

Office of Dietary Supplements (National Institute of Health)

CAM on Pubmed research database (National institute of Health)

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines (National Institute of Health)

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Medline Plus National institute for Health)

Complementary and Alternative Medicine Video List (National Institute of Health, Senior Health)

HerbMed (Alternation Medicine Foundation)

Alternative Medicine Foundation

Complementary and Alternative Medicine updates (Journal of the American Medical Association)

Glossary of Alternative Medicine

Authored by: Hall Health Center Health Promotion staff
Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Primary Care Clinic staff (MC), February 2014

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