Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Updated June 15, 2004





Acupuncture Statistics
By Brian B. Carter, MS, LAc

Brian is the founder of the Pulse of Oriental Medicine. He teaches at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and maintains a private acupuncture and herbal practice in San Diego, California, and is the author of Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure.
I've received requests from some members of the media about acupuncture statistics, and I've noticed some others who should have... so I've organized what I've found and put it all in one place, along with requisite references for skeptical scientists. If you find any new ones not in this document, please let me know about them!

Open Minded to Acupuncture

According to a small National Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) survey (1), an estimated 10% of Americans have tried acupuncture, and of those who haven't, two-thirds would consider it. If true, this would mean about 30 million Americans have tried acupuncture, which is amazing, considering it's only been in the U.S. for 30 years, and there are only about 15,000 acupuncturists, many of whom have only been licensed in the last 10 years.

However, data from a 2004 U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services report (2) analyzed responses from a much larger group of Americans (31,044) from the 2002 National Health Interview Survey, and found that only 4% had ever tried acupuncture. Still, the same data shows that acupuncture is slightly more popular than homeopathy, four times more popular than naturopathy, and ten times more popular than ayurveda.

Accepted By Western Medicine

According to a 1998 survey of the literature published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (3), Western medical doctors are most likely to refer patients for acupuncture (43%) than for chiropractic (40%) or massage (21%).
This fits with the general perception by Western docs that chiropractors have yet to prove the value of their therapy with research (4), while many MD's are aware of at least some of the science that supports and explains acupuncture.

Still, the 2004 USDH report shows that five times as many people had ever had chiropractic than acupuncture, and almost eight times as many of them had used chiropractic in the previous 12 months. This is likely because Americans have been aware of chiropractic longer, and because chiropractors have been so successful reaching out to prospective patients directly. I suspect many of them don't rely on MD's for referrals.

Likewise, the 2004 USDH report shows that of the people who used an alternative medicine system (acupuncture, ayurveda, homeopathy, or naturopathy), more people tried acupuncture than the other systems because their conventional medical professional suggested it.

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Research on Acupuncture

Succeeding the now outdated 1997 National Institute of Health's Consensus Statement on Acupuncture is the World Health Organization's 2002 Review of Randomized Controlled Acupuncture Trials. (5)

They grouped their results this way:

  • 28 diseases for which acupuncture is undoubtedly effective
  • 63 diseases for which acupuncture has been shown effective but more proof is needed
  • 9 diseases Western medicine can't treat well (proof is weak but acupuncture is worth trying), and
  • 7 diseases in which acupuncture could be tried if the practitioner has sufficient medical knowledge and equipment.

Of course, this is only one kind of research, which answers the question, "Does acupuncture definitely help people with such and such disease?" Answering such questions is complicated by the fact that there is more than one style of acupuncture, and so even if one style doesn't help, if the others haven't been tried, we can't conclude that ALL acupuncture won't help the condition in question.
Plus, there are other types of research that look more specifically at what parts of the body are affected by different acupuncture points. For example, MRI's and PET-scans have shown specific areas of the brain (e.g., the visual cortex, or Broca's area on the left side) activated by specific points. Since different people with the same disease have different issues, breaking the research down into these component parts may provide more valuable information for clinical acupuncture than simply finding out that one or another combination of points helped a certain percentage of people with a specific disease.

Getting Results: Health and Life

In 2001, Members of the British Acupuncture Council surveyed 132 acupuncture patients, and found that

  • Their physical symptoms were relieved 75% of the time, and
  • Their emotional and mental symptoms 67% of the time.
  • In addition, 54% felt "inner life changes," and
  • 27% experienced "major life changes."
  • 42% of the patients changed their reason for coming at some point during the course of their treatment. (6)

The last 42% isn't surprising. We are still educating most patients about what we can and can't treat. Many times, as we heal their first complaint, they discover we can also help with another one, and we shift to treating that.

Sometimes we run into the ironic experience of a patient calling to cancel a treatment because they're sick - you're supposed to go to the doctor when you're sick! Why would you stay home? And, as you may read elsewhere, Chinese herbs are the best way to treat most colds and flu's.

More Attention to Patients

In the 2002 study, "Characteristics of Licensed Acupuncturists, Chiropractors, Massage Therapists, and Naturopathic Physicians," (7) the American Board of Family Practice found that, though acupuncturists and Western physicians both average 25 hours per week with patients, acupuncturists see fewer patients and spend double or triple the time with each one.

I believe Chinese medicine takes more time because of several factors:

  • Most people who choose to learn and practice Chinese medicine enjoy talking with their patients
  • Chinese medicine covers mind, emotions and body, so there is more to discuss
  • Most acupuncturists are taught and continue a style of practice that, despite the long initial intake, history, and diagnosis, includes a shorter intake and re-diagnosis each visit.

Up and Coming Chinese Herbs

According to a national survey (8) of 2055 American adults published in the November 1998 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, about 12% of Americans take Chinese herbs.

Elsewhere, I've read that in 1998, 86% of households contained medicinal herbs. That means about 1 in 7 herbs purchased are Chinese herbs. This seems high to me. I would estimate that it's more like 1 in 15. Of course, the key is how you define Chinese herbs. If ginseng or ginger alone (single herbs) is counted as Chinese, the JAMA figure makes sense. But if you mean traditional Chinese herbal formulas, since Chinese herbal practitioners rarely or never prescribe just one herb, I'd guess 1 in 15.

Click here to read about acupuncture safety statistics.


  2. Barnes PM, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin RL. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults: United States, 2002. Adv Data. 2004 May 27;(343):1-19.
  3. Astin JA, Marie A, Pelletier KR, Hansen E, Haskell WL. A review of the incorporation of complementary and alternative medicine by mainstream physicians. Arch Intern Med. 1998 Nov 23;158(21):2303-10.
  4. For more on this, read former JAMA editor George Lundberg MD's book, Severed Trust: Why American Medicine Hasn't Been Fixed.
  5. Acupuncture: Review and analysis of reports on controlled clinical trials.
  6. Gould, MacPherson. Patient Perspectives on Outcomes After Treatment with Acupuncture. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2001 7(3):261-8.
  7. Cherkin DC, Deyo RA, Sherman KJ, Hart LG, Street JH, Hrbek A, Cramer E, Milliman B, Booker J, Mootz R, Barassi J, Kahn JR, Kaptchuk TJ, Eisenberg DM. Characteristics of licensed acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and naturopathic physicians. J Am Board Fam Pract. 2002 Sep-Oct;15(5):378-90.
  8. David M. Eisenberg, Roger B. Davis, Susan L. Ettner, Scott Appel, Sonja Wilkey, Maria Van Rompay, and Ronald C. Kessler. Trends in Alternative Medicine Use in the United States, 1990-1997: Results of a Follow-up National Survey. JAMA, Nov 1998; 280: 1569 - 1575.
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