Could it be real? Go to the ER and get an acupuncture treatment?!

Yes, exactly. As the FDA is changing its strategies to prevent opioid misuse and abuse, there has been a growing trend for the application of acupuncture in the emergency room (ER) [1]. Last month, I was in the emergency department (ED) as part of my rotation as an acupuncturist and experienced the practical and magical effects of acupuncture there.

Supervisor Dr Rona Ma

Despite being a doctor of integrative medicine for over 14 years since I graduated 18 years ago, I never thought about working in the ED. I have always been impressed by the fast rhythm of the emergency room. The heroic images of the doctors and nurses on the TV show “ER” from over two decades ago stayed in my memory. In 2005, two doctors brought forth the proposition of “complementary and alternative pain therapy in the emergency department”, with acupuncture as one of the important modalities [2]. After their academic publication, there was an emergence of clinical research on acupuncture in the ED [3].

In the real setting of ED at the Highland Hospital, the doctors and nurses are all full of passion and efficiency. It is the only place where they never ask what kind of insurance you are holding before they admit you. The people in the ED are all eager to rescue, treat, help and comfort anyone who is in need of emergency medical attention.

After the ED team’s morning round, we got our referrals from the western medical doctors. The first patient we saw was a middle-aged woman who had right shoulder/arm pain and chest pain with stiffness. She already had experienced two episodes of being in the ED over the past three months and cardiovascular issues had been ruled out for the chest pain. This was the first acupuncture treatment ever for the patient. We used auricular acupuncture and a few needles for local treatment. The patient reported her pain to decrease by 80% after 15-20 minutes of treatment.

My dear colleague Tom

At the end of the day, all of our patients reported benefiting from the 30 minutes of acupuncture treatments and were discharged with satisfaction. Over the past month, we met many kinds of patients; their suffering varied from pain of unknown reasons, pain from old injuries, opioid addiction, acute trauma, newly diagnosed malignancy or ongoing malignance with complication, etc. 80% of the patients didn’t have any prior experience with acupuncture. After the treatments, most of the patients reported feeling benefits; which included decreasing or eliminated pain, relief from anxiety, calming down and falling asleep after a whole sleepless night.

Everyday in the ED, we acupuncturists hang around patients and staff and are rewarded by genuine appreciation. In my mind, these experiences debunk the stereotype of acupuncture as a slow-acting modality. Many regard acupuncture as a placebo since it is lacking in well-conducted clinical research to show consistent effectiveness for all the conditions it can treat. Yet, it is something where one can observe its direct effects through actual experience. Regardless of its absolute validity as therapy for every patient, the bottom line is: acupuncture can better meet some patient’s needs, is easy to implement with minimum potential harm, and improve humane care for pain management in the emergency department.


[1] Weeks J (2017) Practitioner shares experiences as first emergency room licensed acupuncturist. Retrieve from

[2] Dillard JN, Knapp S (2005) Complementary and alternative pain therapy in the emergency department. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2005 May;23(2):529-49.

[3] Kim KH, Lee BR, Ryu JH, Choi TY, Yang GY (2013) The role of acupuncture in emergency department settings: a systematic review. Complement Ther Med. 2013 Feb;21(1):65-72.

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