What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture involves placing fine needles into the body for therapeutic purposes.

What is the difference between medical acupuncture and traditional acupuncture?

Acupuncture first developed in China more than 2,000 years ago. Energy (qi or chi) was thought to circulate around the body in channels (meridians), with dysfunction and disease occurring when qi was blocked or deficient. Acupuncture needles were thought to stimulate the movement of qi. Examination of the tongue and pulse were important in making a diagnosis. ‘Traditional’ acupuncture practitioners continue to use this model to guide their practice today.

‘Medical’ or ‘Western’ acupuncture began in the 1970s and is based on a scientific understanding of the human body (see ‘How Does acupuncture work?’) . Practitioners of medical acupuncture use acupuncture to relieve pain, relax muscles, restore function and provide a sense of well being.

While I am fully qualified in both traditional and medical acupuncture, the way I practice is based primarily on Western medical acupuncture.

Does acupuncture work?

It could be argued that the use of acupuncture would not have persisted throughout China for more than 2,000 years if it didn’t have its uses! More than 33,000 peer reviewed research papers testing acupuncture have been published in the last 50 years. A great challenge in acupuncture research is how to compare real treatment with placebo treatment - this is not easy because sham needles often prick the skin and may have a therapeutic effect. Nevertheless, the consensus view is that is it a good treatment option for a range of conditions and its effects cannot be explained by placebo alone (see ‘Further Reading’). Acupuncture is NICE-approved for migraines and tension headaches.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture has effects locally in the tissues around the needle, on the central nervous system and has general effects on the whole body:

• Acupuncture needles stimulate nerve endings which release chemical substances that increase local blood flow and promote tissue healing. Another chemical called adenosine is also released in response to microscopic tissue damage: this blocks nerve signals resulting in pain relief.

• Acupuncture stimulates nerves that send signals into the spinal cord, where they block pain signals . This is thought to be the main mechanism by which acupuncture relieves pain.

• Acupuncture results in the release of endorphins (endogenous opioid peptides), which eases pain throughout the body and produces a sense of well-being.

• Acupuncture can help restore normal brain pathways (functional networks) related to how we perceive pain. Chronic (long-lasting) pain is often associated within abnormal neural patterns, so that a person can continue to experience pain long after an injury has healed, and acupuncture can help remodel these pathways.

Which conditions can acupuncture help?

Good quality evidence shows that acupuncture can alleviate pain related to many musculoskeletal complaints, including low back pain, arthritis, headaches and migraines.

There is also evidence that acupuncture can relieve symptoms of a range of other conditions, including menopausal hot sweats, painful periods, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, overactive bladder and hay fever.

Acupuncture can help relieve some side effects of cancer treatments including dry mouth, peripheral neuropathy and joint pain from hormone therapy (see ‘Acupuncture in cancer care’).

Some examples of acupuncture research are given in (see ‘Further Reading’)

What is electroacupuncture?

Acupuncture needles can be connected to an electroacupuncture machine, which pulses electricity through the needles. This provides a stronger treatment.

Is acupuncture safe?

Acupuncture is generally very safe and serious side effects are very rare – less than 1 in 10,000 treatments. Sterile needles are used once and disposed of afterwards. Each client’s medical history is taken to ensure acupuncture is appropriate for them. Clients who take warfarin may have acupuncture if their INR is stable and within 2-3, and clients taking other anticoagulants may also have acupuncture – smaller gauge needles are used.

What does acupuncture feel like?

The most common response to the first needle is, “Is it in yet?”! When carried out with care and precision, there is often little or no sensation of the needles. I always begin with an extremely fine needle to test the client’s sensitivity and increase the size accordingly. When electro-acupuncture is used, the client can decide how strong they prefer the stimulation to be.