Your guide to acupuncture

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of TCM traditional Chinese medicine. It is a practice that uses needles that are placed into the body as a form of alternative medicine. The therapeutic results of using needles are said to come from the manipulation of life energy meridians in the body, often referred to as qi or chi, the Chinese word for life force. Essentially, an acupuncturist will stimulate this life force through parts of the body known as acupuncture points, the idea being that pain can be relieved and that ailments can be cured by realigning the meridians of the body for better chi flow. Although the practice has been popular for many centuries, it only started to become popularised in the West from the latter half of the twentieth century. It is important to note that many people regard it as a pseudoscience with no basis in fact although there have been some studies that have pointed to its efficacy.

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 How does acupuncture work?

As mentioned, it is the stimulation of so-called acupuncture points that help acupuncturists to manipulate the essential life force that supposedly flows through all people and living things. For some people who do not believe in the concept of chi, it is consequently very hard to get behind the idea that what is going on will have any physiological effect at all. Such people will often put the effectiveness of the practice down to psychological outcomes, such as the placebo effect, rather than from anything the acupuncturist might actually be trying to do. That said, there are plenty of people from many cultures, including those outside of the wider world of traditional Chinese medicine, who would state that it is one of the most effective forms of alternative therapies there are. In most cases, acupuncturists leave their needles in situ for a period of ten to twenty minutes so that their effect is long-lasting.

Where are acupuncture points?

According to most practitioners, there are 14 meridians – also known as energy pathways – that proceed through the human body. Along any of these meridians, there are several different points that can be manipulated with a needle to promote better energy flow. Just one of these is known as the lung meridian, for example. Strangely, the lung meridian, which is connected to breathing and cardiovascular health, has no points that are anywhere close to the upper chest. Instead, the points of the lung meridian run along the thumb, the wrist, the forearm, the elbow, the upper arm, the shoulder and the collarbone. In all, there are 11 such points that constitute the lung meridian. By comparison, the stomach meridian has 45 points. These run from the second toe, up the leg, over the tummy and chest towards the neck, chin and cheek, with the highest point located at the top of the forehead, to one side. In short, they're located all over the body.

How does acupuncture help?

Science does not explain how acupuncturists are able to achieve their results. Even more confusingly, academic research is divided. Whereas some studies show that the use of needles produces no discernible results with the management of chronic pain among patients, for example, other papers have been published that suggest that it can help, especially in the short term. How this works may come down to the faith, or otherwise, that people have in the process. In other words, by committing to the idea of an acupuncturist's likelihood of producing good results, so people may be more inclined to report that they feel them. Over 1,500 studies have been conducted into the practice, and none is conclusive. That said, many people swear that it has helped them, and, even if there is no noticeable physiological reaction to it, then the psychological one may be enough to produce results.

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Is acupuncture painful?

According to healthcare services that use acupuncture as an alternative therapy, such as the NHS, there is little to worry about in terms of pain when undergoing a treatment. Indeed, one of the principal reasons that the treatment is prescribed by medical doctors is to attempt to deal with chronic pain without relying on strong drugs. Bear in mind that by far, the majority of acupuncturists use very thin needles. Some people report discomfort when they are inserted into the skin, but many people say that they do not detect them at all. Most of the time, the needles are left to do their work without further manipulation, and, over the course of an entire treatment, many can be inserted. So long as they are removed with due care, there should be no pain that is felt. Although soreness might be felt after a treatment, this is not common and won't last for long.

What does acupuncture treat?

As one of the main aspects of traditional Chinese medicine, there is no ailment or condition that acupuncturists won't attempt to treat. Anything from treating chronic back pain to helping people who want to give up cigarettes will be part of a typical acupuncturist's daily workload. That said, few would claim that acupuncture is good for dealing with trauma, such as injuries and lacerations, nor is it a suitable approach for very serious conditions, like cancer. What it can do is to help alleviate the symptoms of other treatments, such as feeling nauseous after taking certain drugs, for example. The NHS has guidelines about the use of acupuncturists, and this tends to restrict the use of the alternative therapy to help with things like dental pain, joint pain, postoperative recovery, migraines, tension headaches and lumbar pain only. In private practice, it tends to be used to treat other ailments, too, such as skin complaints, psychological issues and even as way to get better sleep.

Where did acupuncture originate?

As previously mentioned, acupuncturists first started to ply their trade in China. Some suggest that the practice has been around since about 100 BCE, but some scholars think that the practice may be a good deal older. Either way, it has been widely used in China for well over 2,000 years. That said, the popularity of the practice has waxed and waned in that period. During the Song dynasty in China in the 1300s, for example, it was out of fashion. The Chinese Emperor also declared it to be outside the mainstream in 1822 before it was, once again, re-established in Chinese medicine. Certainly, the practice was known to be operating in Korean culture from about the sixth century AD, with Japanese people also performing it soon afterwards. The first legal acupuncturist in the United States first began practising in 1972 in Washington DC.

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Are acupuncture pens any good?

An acupuncture pen delivers a small electric current to an acupuncture point instead of a needle being placed into it. There are many different types of pen available to buy, but they all work on the same principle, that of so-called electro-acupuncture. Some acupuncturists will insert a needle and then apply an electric current to it during an electro-acupuncture treatment. However, pens work slightly differently because they apply the electricity to the selected point without the need to penetrate the skin. Some studies have noted a reduced amount of nausea among people who use them, especially when they have been taking a drug therapy that has been unsettling them. The US Food and Drug Administration tested some pens and found that there was little to recommend them, however. In fact, they warned about potential tissue damage caused by their repeated use. Nevertheless, some people consider them to be completely harmless.

Will acupuncture help with migraines?

In 2016, a scientific study into migraines and acupuncture was carried out. The results were interesting, if mixed. This particular research found that there was a beneficial effect from the practice among people who suffered from high tension types of headache. When a group who received true acupuncturists' treatments was compared to those who had a sham version of the treatment instead, however, the beneficial effect was not very pronounced. In other words, although it seems to help, there is little more than a placebo effect going on. Another study conducted four years before did find a more substantial effect in treating migraines, however, although it cited some concerns over patient safety. Overall, many people have been treated for migraines with the practice, and some will claim almost total success.

Can acupuncture make you tired?

According to the British journal, Nursing Times, there are mixed results from being treated by an acupuncturist. Some people will feel enlivened as they are being treated and become more focussed and alert as the needles are inserted into them. There again, others report a more calm sensation that leaves them feeling relaxed. In other words, there is no hard and fast rule, and people react differently. However, a minority of people who are treated in this way will report they do end up feeling lethargic as a result. In the worst cases, you might feel dizzy or even faint following a treatment session. Therefore, it is best not to drive to a treatment if you have no other means of getting home, especially if it is your first time and you don't know what to expect or how your body will react. However, such feelings of tiredness are often short-lived, and you can go about your business without too much of a delay.

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Is acupuncture good for anxiety?

Because it is a complementary therapy, acupuncture is often regarded as a low-risk option when treating anxiety and depression. Many people will prefer going to see an acupuncturist if they are suffering from prolonged bouts of anxiety than immediately being prescribed a course of drugs, for example. Equally, it is often viewed by patients as a more straightforward and less personally invasive form of treatment than a talking therapy, for instance. How effective the practice is for dealing with mental disorders is more of an open question. Certainly, some studies have found that there is a beneficial effect, although how this might work is less well understood. Most research has focused on how the therapy might help people with generalised anxiety disorder, although there is some evidence to suggest it may also help with conditions like PTSD post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks. Again, little is understood in either area at the moment.

Which safety concerns are associated with acupuncture?

There are some safety issues to take into consideration before booking a treatment with an acupuncturist. Firstly, the insertion of needles could carry communicable diseases, especially those in the blood, unless the needles are properly sterilised after each use. It is for this reason that most acupuncturists around the world have to be registered practitioners. More widely, some people might suffer adverse reactions from an acupuncture session. The very worst cases of malpractice have resulted in fatalities, but it is important to underline just how rare such events are. Extra care should always be taken when an acupuncturist is treating women during pregnancy, and children. In some cases, eye injuries have occurred when needles have been used in close proximity to them.

How is acupuncture regulated?

The World Health Organization recommends that all acupuncturists are licensed in some way and have at least 200 hours of training under their belt before they can practise. In most developed countries, this is certainly the case. National regulatory bodies exist in New Zealand, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Japan and the European Union, for example. Acupuncture is regulated by the Chinese Medicine Council, which was founded in 1999 specifically to deal with issues of malpractice in the country. Only registered practitioners can operate in Australia, but there are schemes within each state rather than a nationwide licensing arrangement. Multiple regulatory bodies and professional acupuncturist organisations have been up and running in the United States since the mid-1980s, with some crossover between their operations.

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Acupuncture in summary

As one of the best-known alternative therapies in the world, acupuncture is a widespread practice with many adherents to its benefits and lots and lots of practitioners around the globe. Despite its enormous popularity, however, there are plenty of medical organisations and scientific groups who doubt it is any more effective than receiving a placebo treatment. Nonetheless, studies keep being conducted which tend to show that there is a beneficial medical outcome that can be detected from the therapy, albeit usually a small one. So while the debate about acupuncture – and the wider use of alternative therapies – rages, many people quietly get on with it. As such, the anecdotal evidence in support of it is almost overwhelming.

Although sticking needles into your body may seem like it is an odd way to deal with physical and mental ailments, the main idea is that your life force will be manipulated by them. Consequently, highly precise use of the needles is what will often mark one acupuncturist out from another. To some who carry it out, this is a lifelong commitment to become more and more skilled with their deployment in very specific locations that must take into account the different shapes and sizes of patients.

Although acupuncture has been shown to have lead to the transmission of blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis, most acupuncturists are very professional about their sterilisation processes, and they will only be too pleased to discuss them with you if you are worried ahead of a treatment. Consequently, many people in the West now see it as a useful treatment pathway that is safe regardless of whether or not it was developed in China outside of the usual medical traditions of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and North America.

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