There’s been a resurgent and booming interest in alternative healing modalities, like Reiki, craniosacral therapy, and sauna and cold plunging as of late. Acupuncture, too, is having a moment. Recent years have seen a new crop of chic acupuncture boutiques crop up and expand their businesses nationwide. But what exactly is this ancient practice of healing that was founded in China some 3,000 years ago? Ahead, a lay of the needly land and experts’ take on the trend of upmarket acupuncture boutiques.
What is Acupuncture?
You may have vague notions of acupuncture involving tiny needles and lying down, but it's actually a whole system of Eastern medicine. “Acupuncture is based on the premise that energy, or qi, flows within the body along pathways called meridians. The disruption or stagnation of qi is believed to lead to medical maladies,” says Jamie Bacharach, Dipl.Ac, licensed medical acupuncturist and the head of practice at Acupuncture Jerusalem, who originally is from and studied in North America. And yes, there are needles. “The practice of acupuncture involves placing thin needles in particular points along the body in order to help balance this flow of qi, thereby healing and strengthening the patient in question,” explains Bacharach, noting that in more traditional medical terms, acupuncture can help to promote healthy blood flow in order to target and remedy a wide variety of pains and ailments.
As for why there’s been an uptick in interest in acupuncture, Bacharach ascribes it to a societal shift “towards the awareness that while traditional Western medicine can work wonders, oftentimes it prescribes medications which target only the symptoms and not the underlying illness.” By offering a no-risk treatment option with the potential for a cure, says Bacharach, acupuncture is an attractive option for anyone looking to avoid pills and medications in particular.
Danielle Kelvas, MD, a primary care physician in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who is passionate about functional and holistic treatments, working with The HCG Institute, reiterates Bacharach’s sentiment, saying that in recent years this ancient Chinese traditional healing has gained more traction in Western medicine.
“Acupuncture is believed to balance the life forces known as qi,” echoes Dr. Kelvas. “Although the exact mechanisms of how it works are not entirely clear, I have seen it help patients,” she says, noting that it even helped her personally heal from terrible bilateral IT band tendonitis.
Not sure if you get the whole “qi” thing? Let’s do a deeper dive into this foundational concept in acupuncture. Tom Ingegno, DACM, MSOM, LAC, who is the founder and lead clinician at Charm City Integrative Health in Baltimore, Maryland, often sees individuals misunderstand the notion of qi and thus acupuncture.
“Acupuncture is a part of traditional East Asian medicine and, as such, is a complete medical system. Somewhere along the way, we were associated with new age practices and called alternative medicine,” says Ingegno, who thinks this could be rooted in the misconception of qi. “When practitioners refer to qi, we are referring to the ability of the body to perform specific functions when necessary. It is not some mystical force that shoots from fingertips. The concept of qi is an extremely eloquent way of describing a cascade of physiological changes that occur when a patient receives acupuncture.” While Ingegno admits that his clinic may have some “trendy services” (such as red light therapy, halotherapy and whole body cryotherapy), he stresses that they were added because they, like acupuncture, were evidence-based and had similar physiological effects as acupuncture.
Elaborating on this, Tsao-Lin Moy, L.Ac, MSOM, founder of Integrative Healing Arts Acupuncture in New York City, says that acupuncture is one of the eight branches of Chinese medicine, based on daoist principles of yin and yang and a holistic approach addressing body, mind and spirit. “From the western paradigm of emphasis on what is observable or measurable through a clinical lens, trying to decode how acupuncture works is challenging,” she concedes. “This is because there is more that is happening between the patient and practitioner. Acupuncture meridians are known to have different electromagnetic properties and resistance. The interstitium (the 10th organ) is part of an extracellular matrix interwoven throughout the entire body, fluid system and organ system.”
However much or little you understand of the science jargon, know this, when you receive acupuncture “the needles stimulate the nervous system and elicit the rest and digest response (parasympathetic nervous system), which is the body’s natural healing ability,” says Moy. “There is an increase in blood flow, lymph and the release of endorphins (the feel-good chemicals).”
The Potential Benefits of Acupuncture
There’s a growing body of research that indicates the efficacy of acupuncture. "We have a volume of peer-reviewed research that is more than studies on physical therapy and chiropractic combined. Many of these studies show that we outperform standards of care for various conditions,” says Ingegno. “Other studies show that acupuncture positively affects nearly every system in the body.” Take those claims as you’d like but Ingegno urges individuals who are curious about acupuncture to look at two websites on white papers on these effects: Evidencebasedacupuncture.org and Societyforacupunctureresearch.org.
In short, Ingegno, shares that the overarching effect of acupuncture, which can explain many of its benefits, relates to regulating the autonomic nervous system (ANS). “The ANS has two modes: fight/flight (sympathetic) or rest/digest (parasympathetic). When we say stress is the number one killer, we talk about this fight-or-flight response. We, as a species, tend to get stuck here,” he says. “After about 15 minutes of acupuncture, people will shift into their rest and digest modes. This brings with it a lowering of blood pressure, increased circulation, regulation of neurotransmitters (mood-enhancing compounds), reduction of inflammation, improved cellular activity, regulation of immune system function and regulation of hormones,” he continues, citing this scientific review.
Ahead, a few of the fields where acupuncture shows some promising results.
Chronic pain is one area in which acupuncture has encouraging results. “Acupuncture has been clinically shown to help with chronic pain, from those addicted to narcotics, to veterans struggling with PTSD,” says Dr. Kelvas, also pointing to a 2023 study showing that acupuncture can even help with endometriosis.
Bacharach also highlights this 2018 update of patient data meta-analysis, which found that acupuncture has a clinically relevant effect on long-term chronic pain that cannot be explained only by placebo effects. Research also backs the use of treating sciatica, radiating pain along the sciatic nerve which runs down one or both legs from the lower back, adds Bacharach.
Dr. Kelvas emphasizes that while acupuncture is a great holistic way to treat certain types of chronic pain, it’s not a pain panacea. “For example, studies show that it helps fibromyalgia and migraines, but isn't very effective for abdominal pain,” she says. “Acupuncture can temporarily relieve minor to moderate spinal pain, like neck and lower back pain, but it isn't a cure,” adds Dr. Kelvas. “Lifestyle changes like stretching, diet, exercise, etc., should be incorporated with acupuncture when treating neck and lower back pain.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Frequently referred to by its shorthand of PTSD, Dr. Kelvas states that acupuncture has been shown in numerous studies to help this condition, especially in areas where access to advanced care is limited. “What's so interesting here is that acupuncture helps to regulate the stress response in the neuroendocrine system, and it promotes neuroprotection, neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity in several brain areas,” says Dr. Kelvas, referencing this review on the efficacy and underlying mechanism of acupuncture in the treatment of PTSD.
Bacharach also singles out a plethora of studies conducted that have proven the medical benefits of acupuncture for insomnia and anxiety. These issues can exist outside of PTSD but are also two common symptoms of the condition.
There are several Chinese scientists currently studying acupuncture's effects on Long Covid, including this June 2023 review article, offers Dr. Kelvas, sharing that patients are feeling better after consistent treatments. “This is really exciting, because currently we don't fully understand the cause of Long Covid, so this makes finding a treatment particularly challenging,” says Dr. Kelvas. (And here’s a current study expected to be completed in 2025 researching acupuncture as a potential treatment for long-haul Covid.)
Plus, Moy turns our attention to studies out of Harvard that show the science behind acupuncture and how it can quiet the cytokine storm through inflammation regulating pathways. “This is key for addressing many conditions that trigger the immune system over response, such as Covid-19, cancer treatments or sepsis. Cytokine storm has a high fatality rate of 15 to 30%.”
In regard to another emerging realm of research, Bacharach cites the field of infertility as “an increasingly popular area in which acupuncture can either provide a solution or work in tandem with traditional fertility treatment in order to provide heightened odds of success.” (Check out a 2022 review and meta-analysis of some of the research here.)
The Cost of Acupuncture
Bacharach says that per session, $75-$125 is considered a good rate, with $125-$200 more typical, and anything over $200 trending toward expensive. Similarly, Ingegno ballparks the range of an acupuncture treatment between $80-$200 per session. Both acupuncturists stress that price varies by location and the practitioner’s experience.
“Community clinics may charge a lower price, but you will be in a communal room, and often, areas like the back and abdomen can’t be treated,” adds Ingegno. “Many private clinics accept insurance, and many policies have acupuncture benefits.”
Wherever you decide to book a treatment, Ingegno says you should seek out a licensed acupuncturist. “They will have at least a master's degree education in acupuncture. Many practitioners now have an additional doctorate. Some senior practitioners may have been in practice so long that these degrees didn’t exist,” he says. “At a minimum, ensure they have the proper licensing with the state. You can ask about the practitioner's training and experience—most of us like to have that conversation.”
Expanding on that, Bacharach comments that a practitioner with decades of experience has a wealth of knowledge to draw on that an inexperienced practitioner cannot possibly match. “The value of being treated by a practitioner who has 'seen it all before' and understands how to heal a patient with a specific set of symptoms or circumstances is huge,” says Bacharach.
As far as red flags to evaluate when finding a practitioner, Moy cautions folks to be wary of chiropractors and physical therapists who are offering “dry needling” to get around the licensing and training requirements of acupuncture, which is its own profession. Also, avoid acupuncture clinics that take a one-size fits all approach. “In my professional opinion, cookie cutter protocols are counter to the personalized patient care that is Chinese medicine and acupuncture,” says Moy.
Should You Try Acupuncture?
According to Bacharach, acupuncture represents a low-risk, high-reward option for anyone looking for relief from recurring medical problems and particularly those for whom traditional treatment options have not provided permanent relief. “Unlike with prescription medications or procedures, acupuncture almost always comes with zero side effects or genuine dangers,” says Bacharach, adding that the pain level is minimal during these treatments. That said, before scheduling your first appointment, you may want to check with a trusted healthcare practitioner or your primary care physician.
And remember, acupuncture is not a “miracle cure,” as Bacharach phrases it. “It may take a few treatments in consecutive weeks in order to see results, particularly if you're seeking relief from an ailment that has been present for years (generally the longer the patient has been suffering, the longer it may take to achieve a cure),” she says.
Are Upscale Acupuncture Boutiques Worth It?
As you may have gathered by now, “it is better to look for experienced practitioners with whom you get along and who understand your condition,” says Ingegno, rather than amenities like tea service and additional offerings. “These practitioners may charge more but could provide you with better results. That being said, pricier is not the goal; outcomes are.”
Per Bacharach, the superficial chicness of a studio is almost entirely irrelevant, whereas attributes like a practitioner’s level of experience, education and medical reputability are. “Obviously the cleanliness level of a clinic is important, and ideally a clinic should be serene and conducive to relaxation and recovery,” she says. “But ultimately it is the skill of the practitioner in identifying the underlying medical problem(s) and applying the correct course of treatment that matters most.”
Below, three new and noteworthy acupuncture clinics leading the charge in this upscale acupuncture clinic niche.
Opened in March 2020 amidst the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic stateside, ORA was founded by Kimberly Ross as a one-stop “holistic healing destination.” Services run the gamut from acupuncture (including an acupuncture facial) and massage and cupping treatments to add-ons to treatments like Gua Sha for pain relief and e-stim to help with sore muscles. The flagship location is in NoHo and a new outpost recently opened on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue in the Upper East Side.
Opened in November 2020 by acupuncturists Sandra Subotich and Madeleine (Maddie) Tracey and designed by Studio K, alternative therapies at this private social and wellness club include chiropractic services, Ayurveda, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. BIÂN sprawls over some 25,000 square feet in Chicago’s River North district and also has a med-spa for beauty treatments, spa and gym.
This spa first opened in 2014 and has dramatically grown its reach through an online shop and expert-led master classes in the years since. Founded by herbalist and acupuncturist, Mona Dan, L.Ac, MTOM, traditional Chinese medicine practices are on offer including acupuncture, cupping, energy work and 24k gold ear seeds. Online, the brand offers facial and body sculpting tools, supplements and teas, its famous 24k gold ear seeds, and soon-to-launch vibration therapy, VYBRA.