Acupuncture is a safe and potentially effective treatment for overactive bladder symptoms. But the research on this subject is limited.

Someone getting acupuncture on their lower back to relieve chronic back pain.Share on Pinterest
petesphotography/Getty Images

Overactive bladder (OAB) is a common condition that can make you feel like you have to pee constantly, frequently — or suddenly — even when your bladder isn’t full.

Treatment often includes medication that helps relax the bladder. But emerging research suggests that acupuncture may be as effective or even more effective than drug therapy.

Here’s what to know about the treatment and whether it’s right for you.

So far, the research on the success of treating OAB with acupuncture looks promising. But more is needed to draw definite conclusions.

In a 2022 review of 30 studies, researchers concluded that acupuncture is more beneficial than placebo acupuncture in reducing OAB symptoms. The research showed that acupuncture reduced OAB symptoms as effectively as medication.

A combination of acupuncture and drug therapy was also found to benefit people more than drug therapy alone. But scientists noted that many of the studies have a high risk of bias or have low sample sizes.

In another 2022 review of 11 studies, more low certainty evidence suggests that acupuncture may be slightly more beneficial than medication for improving or curing OAB symptoms.

In a small 2023 review of five studies, researchers concluded that acupuncture may help regulate bladder function by modulating nerves, inhibiting certain fibers, and reducing the number of spontaneous contractions in the bladder.

Electroacupuncture, which involves stimulating the needles with a mild electric current, may also be an effective option for treating OAB.

In a 2018 review of 10 randomized controlled trials, researchers found electroacupuncture to be more successful than placebo acupuncture in improving OAD symptoms. But additional and higher quality research is needed to know for sure.

When done by a qualified professional, acupuncture is a very low risk treatment.

The main risks of acupuncture lie in using an unhygienic or improper needle insertion, which is why visiting a trained practitioner with an excellent standard of care is key.

Some mild symptoms may occur at the insertion site, such as:

  • soreness
  • swelling
  • bleeding
  • allergic reactions of the skin

But these effects are typically temporary and aren’t a reason for concern. Serious adverse effects of acupuncture are very rare.

If you live in the United States, Healthline has compiled a database for finding qualified acupuncturists in your area. If applicable, you can also narrow down your options to those who accept your insurance.

Although not all insurance policies cover acupuncture, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), those that do are on the rise.

Medicare currently only covers acupuncture by some specialists for chronic low back pain. If applicable, check with the acupuncturist to see if they have the correct license to be able to bill Medicare.

In general, finding the ideal acupuncturist for you may include:

  • Checking credentials: Most U.S. states require acupuncturists to have a license. Before committing to a practitioner, ask to see their credentials, including their license and certification.
  • Asking for a referral: Doctors often provide recommendations or referrals to qualified acupuncturists with experience treating your condition.
  • Reading reviews: Reviews and testimonials can help you understand the experiences of other people who have used acupuncture. You may especially want to find a practitioner with experience treating OAD.
  • Scheduling a consultation: You may want to consider asking the acupuncturist if you can schedule a consultation before undergoing the needles. Visiting the practice, getting comfortable with the practitioner, and assessing the hygiene protocols may help you decide whether the acupuncturist is the right fit for you.

Other treatments for OAB include:

  • Pelvic floor physical therapy: Pelvic floor physical therapy involves exercises that help strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor and surrounding area, which can reduce OAD symptoms.
  • Medication: Medication for OAD may include anticholinergics, antidepressants, or drugs that help relax your bladder.
  • Botox: In small doses, Botox can temporarily help weaken OAB muscles.
  • Nerve stimulation: Nerve stimulation involves stimulating the nerves that send signals to the bladder. More research is needed, but it may be an effective treatment for OAD.
  • Lifestyle changes: Cutting back on substances that can cause discomfort in the bladder, like caffeine and alcohol, can reduce OAD symptoms. Too many citrus fruits, acidic foods, spicy foods, artificial flavorings, sweeteners, and preservatives may also worsen symptoms.
  • Natural remedies: Inhaling essential oils like ylang-ylang, lavender, clary sage, or pumpkin seed may help soothe symptoms, although more research is needed to know for sure.
  • Surgery: Surgery is only recommended in extreme cases.

OAB can cause stress and isolation, so it’s not surprising that it may affect your mental health. If you find the symptoms of OAB are adding stress to your life, talking with a therapist can help.

Emerging research suggests that acupuncture and electroacupuncture may be effective treatments for curing OAD or reducing symptoms.

Although evidence is still limited, acupuncture is considered a very low risk treatment when done by a qualified professional. Especially when combined with treatments like medications or physical therapy, it may be worth a try.