More than 37 million people in the United States, or 11.3% of the population, are living with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Some of them are turning to complementary and alternative medicine for treatment or wellness purposes—or both. In fact, a 2017 study in the Journal of Diabetes found that 26.2% of adults with diabetes reported giving complementary medicine a try.
Some of them may be trying acupuncture to help them manage their blood sugar levels or symptoms—or just feel better. After all, the World Health Organization notes that acupuncture is increasingly used in clinical settings around the world. But it’s important to understand the existing research and evidence and have realistic expectations before you decide to try acupuncture for diabetes.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a practice within traditional Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of tiny needles into various points around the body. It’s been used for more than 2,500 years to address a multitude of health conditions, and its use has been on the rise in the United States in recent years, too. A national survey found a 50% jump in acupuncture users in the U.S. between 2002 and 2012.
In fact, acupuncture is already used to help relieve pain from a number of conditions, including osteoarthritis and postoperative pain, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). It’s also been used to help people with health conditions ranging from asthma to rhinitis to stress incontinence in women, although the NCCIH cautions that some studies have produced low-quality evidence.
Acupuncture and diabetes
If you are looking for some relief from symptoms related to having diabetes, acupuncture could be an option to consider. Blake Estape, an acupuncturist with Miami Acupuncture and Herbal Solutions, explains that acupuncture does seem to help some of his clients with diabetes, including the management of symptoms such as diabetic neuropathy and fatigue.
According to a study published in the Journal of Diabetes in 2021, needle acupuncture did help adult patients with Type 2 diabetes who were affected by diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN) when compared with placebo treatment. The researchers noted that this information could be useful because of the existing lack of disease-modifying therapies for DPN.
Some research also suggests that acupuncture could help people actually manage their diabetes, too. For example, a 2019 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials involving Type 2 diabetes and acupuncture found that acupuncture plus a baseline treatment did reduce fasting blood glucose (FBG) levels, as well as improvements in blood lipids and blood pressure and weight loss.
However, that should not spur you to shelve your insulin or medication. The meta-analysis researchers noted that “the amount of evidence is not fully convincing” and more long-term research is needed. The researchers went on to suggest acupuncture could be recommended as a supplementary treatment for managing Type 2 diabetes.
“I always stress that patients pursue traditional Chinese medicine as an adjunct to conventional care,” Estape says. He also recommends that anyone interested in pursuing this treatment route should do so with the knowledge and support of their healthcare provider.
“Acupuncture has not been shown to reduce blood sugars or prevent complications of diabetes,” says Melissa Weinberg, MD, an endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism specialist with Sutter Pacific Medical Group in San Francisco. “Therefore, it would remain important for the patient to continue with all their usual healthy lifestyle interventions and medications.”
But if you enjoy the experience of getting acupuncture and find that it reduces your stress levels, then that can be beneficial, she adds.
Other treatments for diabetes
Some people can manage their diabetes symptoms and keep their blood sugar levels under control with improvements to their lifestyle while others need medication.
When you have diabetes, your provider or diabetes educator will likely encourage you to make some lifestyle modifications. In addition to carefully monitoring your blood sugar levels, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) recommends these strategies:
- Eat a healthy diet. Meet with your diabetes educator or a registered dietitian if you need help making a workable diabetes meal plan for yourself.
- Exercise most days of the week. Don’t forget to include some strength training, too.
- Reduce your stress levels, since stress can worsen diabetes.
- Seek help if you need it, which might include talking to a counselor or therapist.
- Brush and floss your teeth daily to keep gums and teeth healthy.
- Check your feet regularly for sores or wounds.
Medications used in the treatment of diabetes
- Insulin, which comes in many different types, such as short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting
- Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors
- DPP-4 inhibitors
- Dopamine receptor agonists
- Bile acid sequestrants
- SGLT2 Inhibitors
The bottom line: Can acupuncture help with diabetes?
If you’re trying to decide if acupuncture treatment for diabetes may be right for you, consider talking with your healthcare provider first. Ultimately, acupuncture may be helpful as an adjunct treatment for you, but it’s important to make sure you are maintaining good control of your blood sugar levels, which may entail lifestyle medications and certain medications.
“If someone wants to try acupuncture as a complementary treatment, they should find the right acupuncturist, closely monitor their blood sugar, and stay in close contact with their diabetes doctor to make any necessary adjustments to their treatment regimen,” advises Ahmet Ergin, MD, an endocrinologist and founder of SugarMD.
Additionally, finding the right acupuncturist is important. “Patients can ask their endocrinologist or primary care provider to refer them to a reputable licensed practitioner in neurology who has experience using acupuncture,” says Aleida M. Saenz, APRN, FNP-BC, director of patient education at the Diabetes Research Institute. “A neurologist or anesthesiologist who practices integrative medicine may be a good place to start.”