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In the UK, acupuncture is a popular and well-established complementary therapy, with approximately three million people undergoing this kind of treatment each year.
Acupuncture is based on the Chinese belief that the human body is controlled by a life force known as Qi (pronounced 'chee'). Qi flows through the body in channels, known as meridians. When your Qi is disturbed or unbalanced it can make you unwell. Acupuncture aims to restore the balance of Qi, and helps it to run smoothly through your body.
Not everyone who practises acupuncture believes in the theory of Qi. Some people take a more scientific approach to acupuncture, focus instead on the way it helps the body to release its natural painkillers, known as 'endorphins'. It can also help stimulate nerve and muscle tissue. Science cannot explain everything about acupuncture, and further research is required before it can be fully understood.
Acupuncture is primarily used to ease symptoms of pain and discomfort. Studies suggest that there are a number of conditions which acupuncture can help to treat, including post-operative pain, migraines and nausea. More high-quality research is needed to explore the effectiveness of acupuncture on other conditions.
Acupuncture is a very safe form of treatment, which has few side effects or complications. However, it is important to make sure that the acupuncturist that you choose is fully qualified, and practises the treatment under safe and hygienic conditions.
How it is performed
How acupuncture is performed
Assessing your health
At your first acupuncture session, your acupuncturist will carry out an assessment of your general health and medical history. They will normally ask about your symptoms, and will also enquire about the type of treatment you have received up until now. They may also ask you questions about your lifestyle, such as your sleeping and eating habits.
After assessing your health and symptoms, your acupuncturist may look at your tongue, as many acupuncturists believe that the colour and coating of your tongue can be a good indication of what is happening inside your body. You may also have your pulse measured in both wrists. Your acupuncturist will be looking to measure the quality, rhythm, and strength of your pulse.
Inserting the needles
There are over 500 acupuncture points on the body. Acupuncture points are places on your body which are thought to affect the way that your organs and tissues function. During an acupuncture session, normally 10-12 acupuncture points are used. The points your acupuncturist uses may differ from session to session, as your treatment progresses.
During an acupuncture session, you will normally be asked to sit, or lie down. You may also be asked to remove some parts of your clothing, so that the acupuncturist can access the relevant acupuncture points on your body.
Once your acupuncturist has identified which points are going to be used, a number of ultra-fine needles are placed into the points. They are normally inserted between half a centimetre, to several centimetres into your skin. These needles are single-use, pre-sterilised needles, which are disposed of immediately after use.
Is it painful?
When the needles are inserted, you may feel a tingling sensation, or a dull ache. You should not experience any significant pain. If you do experience pain, let your acupuncturist know straight away, as they may have to readjust the position, or depth, of the needle.
The needles used for acupuncture are very different to those used in injections, or blood tests. They are much finer and solid (rather than hollow), making them less painful to insert.
How long does an acupuncture session last?
Once the needles used in acupuncture are inserted, they will be left in place for between 5-30 minutes, depending on the type of treatment you require. In some cases, acupuncture needles will be inserted and then removed a few seconds later. Most acupuncture sessions last between 20-40 minutes. You will normally require approximately 6-12 sessions of acupuncture in order to feel the full benefits of the treatment.
What it is used for
What acupunture is used for
Acupuncture and conventional medicine
A lot of people use acupuncture when they find conventional medical treatments do not work for them. Others use acupuncture alongside more conventional treatment, as a way of enhancing their existing treatment, and speeding their recovery.
Some people find that their medical treatment is causing unwanted side effects, and therefore they may try acupuncture as an alternative.
If your GP is treating you for a condition or illness, it is advisable that you inform them about your acupuncture treatment. This means that they can it take into consideration when working out how best to treat your condition.
Some people who have acupuncture find that they are able to reduce, or eventually stop taking, certain forms of medication. However, under no circumstances should you stop taking any prescribed medication, unless your GP specifically advises you to.
Which conditions can acupuncture help treat?
It is very hard to compile a definitive list of conditions that acupuncture can treat. Some acupuncturists suggest that acupuncture can treat a very wide range of conditions, from diarrhoea and the common cold, to drug addiction and insomnia.
However, because there is a lack of high-quality research into the effectiveness of acupuncture, it means that it is very difficult to be certain which conditions and problems acupuncture can successfully treat.
It has been proven that acupuncture does encourage the body to release natural painkilling substances (endorphins), which means that it is most effective in easing your symptoms of pain and discomfort.
Studies have shown that acupuncture is most effective in helping ease the symptoms of the following conditions:
- dental pain,
- neck pain,
- chronic (long-lasting) back pain,
- post-operative pain, and
- nausea (particularly chemotherapy-induced nausea).
Although these are some of the only conditions which studies have conclusively proven to be affected by acupuncture, many people have found that the treatment has helped them with other conditions and health-related problems.
Studies have shown that acupuncture may have a limited effect on other conditions, although further research is needed before its effect can be proven. These conditions include:
- digestive disorders,
- asthma, and
Acupuncture is a very safe form of treatment that has few side effects. Although some studies have not produced conclusive evidence about its effectiveness, many people are still willing to try acupuncture, particularly as there are few risks involved. Acupuncture should not make your condition worse and, following treatment, your symptoms should either remain the same, or they should improve.
Stopping smoking and weight loss
Although some people use acupuncture to help them lose weight, or stop smoking, research has shown that it is unlikely to have any effect on either weight loss, or giving up smoking.
The best way to lose weight is by ensuring that you take regular exercise, and eat a healthy, balanced diet. There are lots of ways that you can stop smoking. For more information and guidance, call the NHS smoking helpline on 0800 022 4 332. Lines are open seven days a week, 7am-11pm.
Who can use it
Who can use acupuncture
Most people who use acupuncture receive private treatment. In the UK, it is estimated that approximately two million people undergo private acupuncture treatment each year.
Although most people have private acupuncture treatment, it is available in some areas through the NHS. Although the availability is currently very limited, approximately one million people have acupuncture treatment through the NHS each year.
NHS acupuncture may be carried out at a hospital, GP surgery, or specialist clinic. You can ask your GP about the availability of acupuncture in your area.
It is safe for you to have acupuncture while you are pregnant, but you must let your acupuncturist know before you begin your treatment. This is because some acupuncture points cannot be used during pregnancy. A qualified acupuncturist will know which points are safe to practice on.
Acupuncture may be effective in treating a number of conditions during pregnancy, such as morning sickness and constipation, and has also been used by some women to help induce labour. However, it has yet to be conclusively proven how effective acupuncture is in treating these conditions.
Drugs and alcohol
You should never have acupuncture while you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol because they may cause your body to react abnormally to the treatment.
How it works
How acupuncture works
The traditional Chinese philosophy on which acupuncture is based states that your health is dependent on the body's energy force, known as 'Qi'. When you are healthy, Qi moves in a smooth, fluid way through a series of channels in the body called 'meridians'.
When you are faced with a physical, mental, or emotional problem, or illness, the Qi is disrupted, and your health worsens. By inserting needles into your body's meridians, it can help to release any blockages in the energy flow. It also helps to restore the body's natural balance by stimulating its own healing process.
Although not all of the effects of acupuncture can be explained using conventional medicine, there has been some scientific research which shows how acupuncture can stimulate the body and reduce pain.
When you insert needles into acupuncture points, it can help stimulate nerves, muscles, and tissue in your body. This stimulation then encourages the body to release certain chemicals, such as endorphins, and serotonin. Endorphins are the body's natural form of painkillers, and your brain releases these chemicals at times of pain and stress. Serotonin is a chemical that can affect your mood, emotions, and behaviour. It can also provide pain relief.
Risks of acupuncture
If carried out by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is a very safe form of treatment, with few side effects.
Serious complications, such as infection, and damaged organs, or tissue, are extremely rare, and usually only occur as a result of bad practice, or a poorly trained acupuncturist. A properly trained acupuncturist will always use clean needles and dispose of them after every use.
Bleeding and bruising
In some cases, acupuncture can cause soreness, bleeding, and bruising, at the points on your skin where the needles enter. If you develop these symptoms, make sure that you tell your acupuncturist so that they know to avoid certain acupuncture points in the future, or to insert the needle in a different way.
Bleeding and bruising is rare following acupuncture. However, there is still a slight risk, so people with bleeding disorders, such as haemophilia (where your blood is unable to clot), or those taking medication which thins the blood (anti-coagulants), may not be able to have acupuncture. If you have a blood disorder, or you are taking medication which thins your blood, make sure that you talk to your GP before you undergo any acupuncture treatment.
If you decide to have acupuncture, it is important to visit a properly qualified and registered acupuncturist. At the moment, anyone in the UK can call themselves an acupuncturist because it is not a state regulated profession. It is therefore very important to ask your acupuncturist about their training, qualifications, and experience.
There are several UK acupuncture authorities that employ trained and experienced acupuncturists. By contacting these organisations, you can find qualified acupuncturists practicing in your local area. These acupuncture authorities include:
- The British Acupuncture Council (BacC),
- The British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS),
- The British Academy of Western Medical Acupuncture (BAWMA), and
- The Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP).
You can contact the BacC by calling 020 8735 0400, or by visiting their website. The BMAS also offer an online search facility which allows you to search an online database of qualified practitioners.
Recovering from acupuncture
How will I feel afterwards?
Acupuncture can affect everyone differently. After acupuncture treatment, some people feel relaxed and calm, while others feel alert and energised.
In some cases, acupuncture can leave you feeling tired and lethargic for a few hours following your treatment session. If you feel tired, drowsy, or lethargic following your acupuncture, make sure you do not drive, or operate machinery, until you feel more alert and awake.
Following an acupuncture session, some people find that the symptoms of their condition, or illness, temporarily worsen, or 'flare-up'. Some people also experience sweating, dizziness, and feel faint.
These effects are usually short-lasting, and pass within a few hours. If you experience a flare-up of your symptoms, or you feel dizzy, or faint, make sure that you rest in order to give your body time to recover. If your symptoms persist, contact your GP, or call NHS Direct on 0845 4647.