Studies have suggested that acupuncture might help people with diabetes by improving blood sugar levels, relieving the symptoms of neuropathy — a complication of diabetes — and more.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 30.3 million people in the United States, or 9.4 percent of the population, are living with diabetes.

In modern-day China, people often use acupuncture to treat diabetes. Scientists who are currently researching the benefits of acupuncture for diabetes note that it may:

  • improve blood glucose management
  • help with weight loss
  • protect pancreas islet function, which is responsible for insulin production
  • improve insulin resistance
  • adjust the balance of hormones that affect diabetes, for example, melatonin, insulin, glucocorticold, and epinephrine

In recent years, scientists have been looking at ways in which acupuncture might impact the biological mechanism of diabetes and prediabetes to become an effective treatment.

A number of studies have indicated that acupuncture may offer benefits for people with diabetes.

Glucose and insulin levels

Woman receiving acupuncture on her shoulder.Share on Pinterest
Acupuncture may help improve insulin sensitivity.

In 2018, researchers in China published findings that showed how specific acupuncture points help improve symptoms of diabetes in rats with diabetes.

They found that within 3 weeks, the rats that received electroacupuncture had:

  • lower glucose levels
  • increased insulin levels
  • improved glucose tolerance

Insulin sensitivity and resistance

A 2016 literature review of human and animal studies in the journal, Acupuncture in Medicine looked into whether acupuncture:

  • was a valid treatment for insulin resistance
  • could be suitable as a future treatment for insulin sensitivity

The results suggested that low-intensity and low-frequency electroacupuncture could help in reducing insulin resistance and increasing insulin sensitivity.

The researchers suggested that people could either use electroacupuncture alone or with other treatments. Possible alternative therapies include dietary measures and Chinese herbs.

Acupuncture and metformin

In 2015, an article published in Acupuncture in Medicine reviewed studies using rats in which scientists combined electroacupuncture with the anti-diabetic medication, metformin.

They were looking for better glucose lowering responses and greater insulin sensitivity.

The team found that, compared with metformin alone, this combination offered:

  • better glucose lowering effects
  • greater insulin sensitivity

None of the studies appear to address the processes and mechanisms that may explain how exactly acupuncture works to manage diabetes symptoms.

Acupuncture techniques for treating diabetes might be different from those for treating pain.

Medical acupuncture involves many different styles and techniques, but, for the purposes of treating diabetes, there appears to be research for only three of these.

Wrist-Ankle

Wrist acupuncture may help with diabetesShare on Pinterest
Wrist acupuncture may help with neuritis, a complication of diabetes.

Wrist-ankle treatment is a form of acupuncture that involves deep needle stimulation of the ankle and wrist nerves.

In 2014, research published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that wrist-ankle acupuncture treatment may be a safe and effective procedure for treating pain, including diabetic peripheral neuritis.

However, the scientists added that not there is not yet enough evidence to confirm that this method is safe and effective.

Electroacupuncture

Electroacupuncture is the most common type of acupuncture that practitioners used to treat diabetes.

The acupuncturist inserts a pair of needles in each acupuncture point and passes an electrical impulse from one needle to the other.

This treatment appears to be effective in:

Herbal acupuncture

Herbal acupuncture involves injecting herbs into acupuncture points. This is a modern technique.

According to one review from the journal Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine, herbal acupuncture may help maintain blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

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It is best to talk to a doctor before trying acupuncture or another complementary therapy for diabetes.

Anyone considering acupuncture should be aware of some general side effects.

These include the possibility of:

  • soreness
  • bleeding
  • bruising

Before having acupuncture, a person should check that:

  • The needles are sterile and for a single use only.
  • The acupuncturist has a license to practice. Many traditional Chinese medical doctors are also MDs in the U.S., practicing both approaches to health but people should always check their credentials.
  • It is safe for them to have acupuncture treatment. Sometimes, a doctor may discourage a person who is taking blood thinners or has a blood clotting disease from having acupuncture.

Acupuncture can be a safe and effective treatment, as long as a licensed and experienced practitioner performs it. It has become more widely accepted in western medicine over the past 20 years.

People can combine it with other types of diabetes treatment, including medication, a healthful diet, and regular exercise.

However, acupuncture can be expensive, and a person cannot be sure that it will be beneficial for type 2 diabetes.

Q:

I have just had a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and I have to use diet and exercise to control it. Is it worthwhile paying for acupuncture? Will it give me a better chance of keeping healthy?

A:

Acupuncture from a licensed practitioner is safe, but it is not clear that it is worthwhile. This would be a personal decision.

Some studies show there may be positive results, but there is no clear indication that acupuncture will improve the condition of type 2 diabetes.

The best chance of staying healthy is to exercise, follow a recommended diet, and follow your doctor’s advice.

Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.