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Acupuncture and its role in treating skin disease

Author: Brian Wu PhD. MD Candidate, Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, USA. Chief Editor: Dr Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, August 2015.


What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely fine, sterile needles into specific points that lie along meridians of energy in the body (there are some 350 of these points in this tradition). It is believed that stimulation of these nodes unblocks energy, or qi, within the body.

Acupuncture is one of the more widely accepted alternative therapies in the West; it has its origins in China and is believed to have begun between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago.

Variants of acupuncture

  • Herbal acupuncture is acupuncture where herbal ingredients are injected through the acupuncture needle.
  • Bee venom acupunture injects minute amounts of bee venom.
  • Embedding acupuncture embeds the needles for a prolonged effect.

How does acupuncture work?

The specific mechanisms by which acupuncture works are not fully understood, but there have been several theories advanced.

It is believed that acupuncture might work by the stimulation of Raphe nuclei, which increases serotonin production. This, turn, sets off a series of reactions which culminates in the increase of glucocorticoids that modulate inflammation and other aspects of the body’s immune response.

Since many skin conditions are at least in part inflammatory, acupuncture may have a positive effect through reduction of inflammation.

What skin conditions is acupuncture used to treat?

Acupuncture has been used to treat an extensive list of skin conditions, including:

What are the benefits and drawbacks of acupuncture in the treatment of skin diseases?

The benefits of acupuncture as a dermatology treatment include:

  • May provide non-pharmacological relief for pain or itch
  • Less invasive than surgery or other common treatments
  • Holistic treatment approach, which is often used in combination with Chinese herbs and dietary and other lifestyle changes or cupping and moxibustion
  • Increasingly available/accessible treatment.

The drawbacks of acupuncture as a treatment include:

  • Lack of good quality evidence for efficacy
  • Vasovagal symptoms (dizziness, etc.)
  • Insertion site infection (this is considered rare, as needles are sterile and the use of disposable needles has become the norm)
  • Contraindications for patients with bleeding disorders.

Cutaneous adverse effects of acupuncture

Acupuncture has been reported to rarely cause cutaneous disease, such as:

Bee venom acupuncture may more frequently give rise to hypersensitivity or bee sting reactions to bee venom, including anaphylaxis, urticaria and foreign body granuloma.

Herbal acupuncture may give rise to hypersensitivity reactions to plant materials.

Embedding acupuncture may lead to foreign body granuloma.



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