Person lying down with eyes closed receives acupuncture treatment along forehead 1Share on Pinterest
FilippoBacci/Getty Images

Acupuncture, a form of traditional Chinese medicine practiced for thousands of years, involves the stimulation of specific points along your body.

According to the philosophy behind acupuncture, your life force, or qi, flows through your body in specific channels. When qi becomes jammed up at certain points, it can lead to a variety of health concerns, including illness, pain, and general discomfort.

An acupuncturist uses small, narrow needles to gently stimulate specific acupoints and de-clog blockages to get your life force flowing again and ease these symptoms.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, evidence best supports acupuncture’s effectiveness in the treatment of chronic pain conditions, including:

Less evidence supports acupuncture’s benefits for other conditions, like anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

When it comes to fatigue in particular, a 2019 literature review suggests acupuncture may have promise as a treatment, though experts agree on the need for more research.

Chronic fatigue is poorly understood, which makes it somewhat difficult to treat. If other treatments have failed to offer much relief, you’re likely looking for new avenues to explore. Many people find acupuncture a helpful complementary treatment, so there’s a chance it could help you feel less exhausted.

Read on to learn how acupuncture may help ease fatigue and get more details on how to try this approach.

Fatigue goes beyond simply feeling drowsy or tired, in part because it generally doesn’t go away even after you rest. This complete absence of energy can make even basic everyday tasks feel difficult.

If you live with fatigue, you might feel too tired for many daily activities, including:

  • workplace responsibilities
  • caring for children
  • household chores
  • socializing and hobbies
  • exercise
  • showering and getting dressed
  • preparing meals

Fatigue can happen as a symptom of many health conditions, including:

But if your tiredness can’t be explained by another medical condition, you could have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)

This condition involves persistent fatigue that interferes with work, school, and other aspects of daily life for at least 6 months.

If you have CFS, you may:

  • feel exhausted for at least a day after physical activity or a mentally challenging task
  • still feel tired after a full night of sleep
  • notice lingering aches and pains in your muscles and joints
  • get headaches and sore throats frequently
  • notice tenderness in your lymph nodes
  • experience brain fog, or trouble concentrating, retaining information, and remembering things

Find more potential explanations for fatigue here.

Scientific studies have yet to find a definitive explanation for how acupuncture works. Existing evidence does, however, support a few different theories.

Chemical release

Some research suggests stimulation of acupoints might encourage nearby nerve cells to produce pain-relieving chemicals, like endorphins. This may free up the mental energy consumed by sensing and coping with chronic pain.

Acupuncture may also prompt your body to release a chemical compound called carnitine, which helps your cells produce energy. Increasing carnitine levels in your muscles may help ease fatigue after physical exertion.

Placebo effect

According to some studies, “sham” acupuncture and traditional acupuncture offer similar levels of symptom relief. Sham acupuncture uses acupoints that don’t exist in traditional Chinese medicine.

In other words, simply feeling needles on your skin might convince your brain to dial down fatigue signals, or other symptoms, from your body. That’s because acupuncture can trigger a release of dopamine, no matter where the needles enter your body.

Accordingly, many leading acupuncture researchers disagree with the use of sham acupuncture. They believe it doesn’t provide an effective control, since it still prompts a reaction: dopamine release.

Acupuncture may also prove more effective if you believe it will help treat your symptoms.

That said, the results of some cancer-related fatigue studies suggest acupuncture leads to statistically significant improvement compared to placebo treatment. These findings suggest some mechanism beyond the placebo effect plays a part.

Vagus nerve stimulation

According to another theory, acupuncture stimulates your vagus nerve. This nerve links your brain to your body and affects basic bodily functions like breathing and heart rate.

Some evidence suggests that activating your vagus nerve can lower your resting heart rate in the short-term. As a result, your body doesn’t need to work so hard just to exist.

Although research on acupuncture for fatigue remains limited, a few high-quality studies suggest it may prove helpful. Acupuncture also seems to help address multiple types of fatigue.

Chronic fatigue syndrome

Acupuncture probably won’t cure your chronic fatigue completely, but you may feel noticeably less tired.

One 2015 study divided 150 adults with CFS into three groups:

  • Group A received 10 sessions of body acupuncture (the most common kind).
  • Group B received 10 sessions of Korean Sa-am acupuncture.
  • Group C continued their usual treatment.

After 4 weeks of treatment, both Groups A and B reported a reduction in fatigue symptoms compared to the control group. However, only Group A’s reduction was large enough to be considered statistically significant.

One week after their last treatment, Group A rated their fatigue an average of one point lower (out of seven points total).

But when researchers followed up with the participants 9 weeks after the last treatment, acupuncture’s effects had faded.

So, while acupuncture does appear helpful, you may need to receive it on a regular basis to make the benefits last.

Cancer-related fatigue

Acupuncture may also help reduce fatigue related to cancer and cancer treatment.

Research from 2020 reviewed 9 different studies that included 809 participants in total. Treatment groups received acupuncture for between 2 and 10 weeks, depending on the study. Researchers assessed fatigue using the Brief Fatigue Inventory (BFI), a test that measures cancer-related fatigue on a scale of 1 to 10.

On average, people who received acupuncture scored two points lower on the BFI than people who received their usual treatment.

What’s more, in the six studies that had a placebo group, people treated with real acupuncture scored one point lower than those treated with sham acupuncture.

Acupuncture may prove especially helpful for people receiving radiation therapy since fatigue affects most people receiving this treatment.

Acupuncture for fatigue might involve one to three treatment sessions per week. These sessions may last anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes, but you’ll spend some of this time discussing your fatigue, and any related concerns, with your acupuncturist.

Before getting started with treatment, your acupuncturist will ask questions about your symptoms to help narrow down the best acupoints to treat.

Acupoints commonly used in fatigue treatment include:

  • BL23: Midway down your back, close to your spine
  • CV4: Under your belly button
  • GB20: Where the back of your skull meets your neck
  • GV20: At the top of your head
  • SP6: Above your ankle
  • ST36: Under your kneecap

They may do a brief exam before asking you to sit or lie down, depending on the acupoints they’ve chosen. After inserting the needles, they may play soothing music and turn on low lighting to help you feel comfortable and relaxed. You might even fall asleep during the treatment.

Get more details on what an acupuncture session involves.

Does it hurt?

Wondering whether acupuncture hurts? It’s a pretty common concern — the practice does involve needles, after all.

You might feel somewhat relieved to know the needles used in acupuncture typically aren’t painful, since they’re flexible and very thin — not much wider than a strand of your hair, in fact.

You may feel a bit of pressure or movement as the needles go in. It’s also fairly common to notice a drop of blood or slight bruising at the insertion sites after treatment.

Not sure acupuncture is right for you? Acupressure, a related practice, works in much the same way, though it uses fingertip pressure only.

Acupuncture often immediately reduces your heart rate, which can promote relaxation.

All the same, it may take two to four sessions before your fatigue noticeably improves, and additional sessions may help you get even more relief.

Acupuncture is generally quite safe.

Most health complications happen when receiving acupuncture from an untrained provider, who may use non-sterile needles or insert them in the wrong spots. Acupuncturists should always use single-use needles for safety reasons.

Most states require acupuncturists to be certified, but education standards can vary by state. You’ll want to make sure any acupuncturist you choose has a license, preferably from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

You can start your search for an acupuncturist near you by checking these databases:

You can also ask a healthcare professional or loved one for a referral.

Get more guidance on finding a trained acupuncturist.

Important

Never try acupuncture on yourself.

Without training, you may push a needle in too far and pierce a vein or organ or accidentally damage your nerve endings.

You can, however, try acupressure yourself. Acupressure doesn’t involve any needles at all, and some evidence suggests it may help ease fatigue.

How much does it cost?

The cost of acupuncture can vary, depending on factors like:

  • the number of sessions you receive
  • your location
  • the methods your acupuncturist uses

Some insurance companies may cover a number of acupuncture sessions, so it’s worth checking with your provider to find out if your benefits extend to acupuncture.

If you have persistent fatigue, it’s important to connect with a healthcare professional as soon as you can.

Fatigue can happen as a symptom of serious medical conditions, some of which may require prompt treatment.

Acupuncture may help reduce fatigue symptoms, but it can’t replace medical care or resolve any underlying causes of fatigue.

Once you work out a treatment plan with your care team, you can begin to try acupuncture and other complementary treatments, including:

  • Cranial sacral therapy. This form of massage applies pressure to points along your skull, spinal column, and sacrum.
  • Moxibustion. Another type of traditional Chinese medicine, moxibustion involves burning mugwort leaves above your acupuncture points.
  • Tai Chi. This mild form of exercise incorporates slow, controlled movements and deep breathing.

You don’t need a specific diagnosis or referral from a medical professional to try complementary medicine.

All the same, keeping your care team informed about any complementary approaches you try is always wise. This gives them a more complete picture of your health, including what does and doesn’t work for you. It can help them identify any potential complications or adverse reactions.

Regardless of the cause, fatigue can have a profound impact on your life, and acupuncture may offer one option for relief.

Experts don’t fully understand exactly how acupuncture works, but they do consider it mostly safe, with little risk of side effects.

If you’re willing to brave some (very narrow) needles, acupuncture may make a good addition to your fatigue treatment plan.


Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.