Dry eye disease (DED) is a common condition that can impair a person’s vision. It has no permanent cure. However, acupuncture is an alternative treatment option that may help relieve symptoms for up to 6 months.

DED occurs when a person’s eyes do not produce enough tears to stay wet, or when the tears do not work properly. DED can make the eyes feel scratchy, cause blurry vision, and increase a person’s sensitivity to light.

According to the National Eye Institute, almost 16 million people in the United States have dry eye. Typically, a doctor treats DED with topical medications, eye drops, or surgery.

There are also a variety of natural remedies that may help manage dry eye symptoms. One of them is acupuncture. Acupuncture involves the insertion of very small needles into the skin’s surface at different locations.

Researchers do not yet fully understand how acupuncture works to relieve pain and other symptoms. However, acupuncture has been found to relieve symptoms for up to 6 months.

This article discusses the causes of DED, how acupuncture may be useful for managing symptoms, and other options for treating DED.

DED can impair a person’s quality of life. Because of this, finding a treatment that works for a significant amount of time is beneficial.

Acupuncture has been practiced for more than 3,000 years. Many people choose to use acupuncture to help manage a variety of conditions. Researchers note that acupuncture can be effective in the treatment of DED.

A small study from 2019 found that participants experienced significant improvements in dry eye symptoms after 6 months of acupuncture treatment. Improvement occurred as soon as 1 week after the first session.

Learn more about acupuncture.

Normally, the eyes remain moist by the tear ducts producing tears. DED typically occurs due to these tear ducts not functioning properly. Tears can be of poor quality and evaporate too quickly to be able to keep the eyes moist.

People tend to produce fewer tears of high quality as they get older, so DED may be more likely to occur as a person ages. Postmenopausal people also have a higher risk of developing DED due to hormonal fluctuations that affect tear production.

Other risk factors that can cause DED include:

Learn more about dry eyes.

Acupuncture involves a practitioner inserting very thin needles into the surface of the skin at various locations and depths across the body.

Acupuncture has roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which works on the principle that health results from a harmonious balance of the life force qi, pronounced “chee.” Acupuncture works on this principle, too, to ensure that qi flows freely throughout the body.

According to TCM, inserting needles into specific points, or meridians, along the body helps clear qi blockages and restores qi balance. The physical stimulation of needle insertion at these sites may increase blood flow to certain parts of the body.

Acupuncture works by increasing blood circulation and reducing inflammation.

People typically sit or lie down during the session. An acupuncturist uses single-use, disposable, and sterile needles. Experiencing a brief stinging or tingling sensation upon needle insertion is a normal part of the process. After insertion, a dull, aching sensation may follow.

Needles typically remain in place for 20–60 minutes, but this will vary.

All treatments come with some risks. It is recommended a person seek advice from their doctor before pursuing a new treatment.

Some possible risks of acupuncture can include:

  • bruising or bleeding at the point of needle entry
  • infection from unsterilized needles (be sure the acupuncturist uses single-use needles)
  • internal damage if the needle breaks, but this is very rare

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates licensed acupuncturists, so they follow strict rules when using needles. This includes nontoxic needles that are single-use to ensure they are sterile.

Side effects of acupuncture are rare. Some people experience mild side effects, such as:

  • drowsiness
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • pain at the point of insertion

Serious side effects, such as damage to internal organs, are very rare.

There are plenty of treatments doctors may prescribe or recommend to a person with DED, such as:

  • Surgery: Tightening the lower eyelid helps the eye retain moisture.
  • Prescription eye drops: Medications can help increase tear production. These include cyclosporine (Cequa) or lifitegrast (Xiidra).
  • Moisturizing gels: Over-the-counter gels may help the eyes feel less itchy.
  • Artificial tear solution: Common eye drops available over the counter without a prescription from a doctor can help lubricate the eye. This is usually the first line of treatment.
  • Changing medication: If a medication someone is already taking is causing symptoms of DED, using an alternative drug that does not cause symptoms may help.

There are steps a person can take to prevent the onset of dry eyes, including:

  • using a warm compress to soothe eyelids
  • drinking plenty of water
  • using a humidifier
  • avoiding smoke, wind, and dry environments whenever possible
  • limiting or avoiding screen use
  • getting enough sleep
  • consuming enough vitamin A

Dry eye disease (DED) is a common condition. It can have many different causes.

There is no permanent cure for DED, but there are plenty of ways a person can manage their symptoms.

Research notes that acupuncture, a practice from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that stimulates blood flow, may help relieve symptoms for up to 6 months.