Acupuncture is based on theories of body function that are very different from those of Western medicine.  It is believed that there is a free flow of energy (“qi”) through specific pathways (“meridians”) in the body.  There are also opposites, known as “yin” and “yang,” that are in balance.  With disease, the normal flow of energy is disrupted.

There are other major conceptual differences between Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.  For example, Chinese medical theory does not include the concept of a nervous system.  In Western science and medicine, the nervous system is a critical component in understanding and treating a disease such as MS.  Also, while the idea of “causality” (process “a” leads to process “b”) is fundamental to many Western concepts, Chinese thought is focused more on the idea that the world is a web-like array of many interrelated processes that cannot be viewed in isolation or in simple one-to-one relationships with each other.


In general, acupuncture is well-tolerated, especially when done by well-trained acupuncturists.  According to the NIH panel that evaluated acupuncture, “the occurrence of adverse events … has been documented to be extremely low.”  Also, the panel stated that acupuncture was “remarkably safe with fewer side effects than many well-established therapies.”

Several studies indicate that acupuncture is usually safe.  In one report, only 216 serious acupuncture complications were reported worldwide over a 20-year time period.  Two recent studies, each of which evaluated approximately 30,000 acupuncture treatments, found no serious complications and approximately 40 minor complications (such as fainting or nausea).  Serious complications have been associated with poorly trained or negligent practitioners.


For people with MS, one important possible side effect is drowsiness.  This effect, which may occur in up to one-third of people receiving acupuncture, could be worse in people with MS who have MS-associated fatigue or who take potentially sedating medication such as lioresal (Baclofen®), tizanidine (Zanaflex®), or diazepam (Valium®).

Other rare, but potentially serious, risks exist.  Acupuncture should probably by avoided by those who have damaged or prosthetic heart valves or use blood-thinning medication (warfarin or Coumadin®).   Electroacupuncture may produce heart rhythm abnormalities in people with pacemakers.  Sterile disposable needles should be used to avoid serious infections, such as hepatitis and AIDS.  Finally, acupuncture in the chest should be avoided or done with caution (to avoid lung or heart injury), and acupuncture should be used with caution by pregnant women (especially in the first trimester), people with metal allergies, and people taking immune-suppressing medications. 

Practical Information

The length of a complete course of acupuncture treatment depends on the symptoms and the underlying disease.  Improvement may be noted after six to ten sessions.  Longer treatment courses may be necessary for chronic conditions such as MS.

A variety of organizations provide information about acupuncture.  These organizations may also be helpful in locating a trained acupuncturist:

  • The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture has a list of physicians and osteopaths who have acupuncture training (; 4929 Wilshire Blvd., #428, Los Angeles, CA  90010; 800-521-2262).
  • The American Association of Oriental Medicine (; 433 Front Street, Catasauqua, PA, 18032; 610-266-1433).
  • The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (; 11 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 300, Alexandria, VA, 22314; 703-548-9004).

In summary, acupuncture is usually well-tolerated and has produced promising results in limited studies in MS and other conditions.  Small and preliminary studies indicate that acupuncture may improve some MS-associated symptoms, including anxiety, depression, dizziness, pain (including facial pain, low back pain, and neck pain), bladder difficulties, and weakness.  Acupuncture may rarely cause side effects. 

Further studies are needed to more fully understand the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for people with MS. In addition, studies of acupuncture and MS are currently being conducted at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center and at the University of British Columbia.