Is Acupuncture Safe for Children?

A new study finds massive benefits — and no side effects — in giving acupuncture to children with chronic pain.
A new study finds massive benefits — and no side effects — in giving acupuncture to children with chronic pain. Keith Brofsky / Getty Images

There is a growing body of evidence that acupuncture, the traditional Chinese technique of inserting hair-thin needled into strategic points on the body, is safe with no adverse effects and some real benefits: Relieving muscle aches, migraines, stomach cramps, respiratory troubles, and even emotional trauma. That’s great for adults, but what about kids? Is acupuncture safe for them?

The latest study seeking to answer this question, from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, offers solid proof that acupuncture is something parents should consider for their kids. A team of Western and Eastern medicine practitioners recruited 55 children and teens who’d been miserable for months with chronic pain and gave them up to eight 30-minute treatments. Every one of these kids reported having significantly less pain after receiving acupuncture. The greatest reductions came right away, after the first few sessions, but their pain continued dwindling throughout the trial. They didn’t have any adverse side effects from the treatments either, expect maybe feeling slightly tired after a session. Their parents also noticed big improvements in their children’s moods, social lives, and ability to focus at school.

“Many Western practitioners had been hesitant to recommend acupuncture for their young patients either because of the lack of research or because they just assumed parents wouldn’t be interested,” says study author Angela Johnson, a licensed acupuncturist. “Now we have proof that, when done by an expertly trained provider, acupuncture is very low risk. When you weigh the pros and cons, it’s a very safe and effective thing to at least try.”

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The fear for a lot of folks who’ve never tried acupuncture is that it’ll hurt. “When most people think about needles, the first image they have is a big stick needle or a blood draw,” Johnson says. “But acupuncture needles are incredibly tiny and flexible and sterile, so some people feel a slight pinch or sense of warmth for a quick second, but it goes away.” However, convincing a kid that getting stuck won’t hurt can be tough. “Needles can be scary, so it’s important to find a practitioner who’s good with children and knows how to gain their trust,” Johnson adds.

Above all, though, it’s imperative to find an acupuncturist who’s licensed and has the proper credentials, says Johnson. The requirements for practicing vary from state to state, so she suggests going to the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine’s website to learn your state’s rules and find a capable provider.