Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 1 in 3 people in the United States will get shingles. Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, but it’s most common in adults over the age of 50.

When you have shingles, you’ll first develop a rash that turns into blisters. Before the rash appears, you’ll likely feel pain in the affected area.

The pain and rash from shingles affect one side of the body. Areas commonly affected include:

  • neck
  • face or eyes
  • chest
  • abdomen

If you’re experiencing pain from shingles, you may be wondering if acupuncture can help. Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that’s commonly used to treat pain. In fact, there’s been some research exploring acupuncture specifically for shingles.

Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into specific parts of the body known as acupuncture points. The professional who performs this technique is called an acupuncturist. Acupuncturists use single use needles and follow the Clean Needle Technique.

When your acupuncturist inserts the needles, you may feel a tingling sensation. If you experience unbearable pain, let them know.

After inserting the needles, your acupuncturist activates them through electrical stimulation or by gently moving them with their hands, or they may not stimulate them at all. They’ll leave the needles in your skin for up to 30 minutes. This process helps your body to release its own naturally occurring painkillers.

You’ll undergo this treatment depending on the severity of your case and how your body responds. Treatment may be necessary daily or weekly.

Research shows that acupuncture can ease pain in conditions such as migraine and back pain. Various studies have been conducted to see whether acupuncture can also treat shingles pain.

In 2011, a randomized controlled trial showed that acupuncture could be used for the treatment of shingles pain, or acute herpetic pain. Acupuncture may also improve quality of life and reduce anxiety in people with shingles.

More recently, researchers found that adding acupuncture to traditional antiviral therapy shortened the time in three key phases of shingles:

  • the pain before the blisters appeared
  • the time it took for the blisters to scab over
  • the time it took for blisters to stop forming

After recovery, shingles can trigger a painful nerve condition on the areas where the blisters appeared. This nerve pain is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) and can last for weeks, months, or even years.

The CDC reports that 10 to 18 percent of people who get shingles are likely to get PHN. If you get it, you’ll feel it in the areas where you had shingles.

According to the CDC, older adults who had shingles are more likely to get PHN.

In 2014, researchers noted that nearly 140 studies had used acupuncture to help manage PHN within the past 5 years. Other studies have shown that acupuncture may be effective at managing pain related to PHN as well as improving quality of life.

The results from a new study on the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for PHN are forthcoming.

Acupuncture is generally considered safe and has few, if any, side effects.

If you think you have shingles, see your doctor as soon as possible. This increases the effectiveness of any treatment your doctor will prescribe for you. The treatment doesn’t cure shingles. It’s meant to help you manage the pain.

Besides acupuncture, you can use other methods to manage your pain. These include:

  • antiviral drugs such as Famvir, Zovirax, and Valtrex
  • over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers
  • calamine lotion, colloidal oatmeal, andwet compresses

Two vaccines are available for adults ages 50 years and older. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Shingrix and Zostavax for use. These vaccines reduce the risk of getting shingles. If an older adult still gets shingles after being vaccinated, the symptoms may be less intense.

Shingrix, made from a dead germ, is the preferred vaccine. People with weakened immune systems can get it. It’s risky for this group to get the Zostavax vaccine, which contains a live but weakened germ.

Zostavax has not been sold in the United States since November 18, 2020. If you received this vaccine, the CDC recommends that you get Shingrix.

If you’re thinking of trying acupuncture for shingles pain or PHN, consider asking your doctor first. They may be able to help you find a licensed acupuncturist in your area.

Though acupuncture may help with pain, it’s not a treatment for shingles. Be sure to talk with a doctor as soon as possible if you’re experiencing shingles symptoms. This will help ensure you get treated quickly and lower the risk of complications.