Acupuncture is a health treatment originally developed in ancient Chinese medicine in which needles are inserted into defined points on the body. Many physiotherapists use acupuncture, trigger point acupuncture and acupressure to relieve pain and speed recovery.
Acupuncturists now divide into two main streams, traditional Chinese practitioners and Western medical practitioners:
- In traditional Chinese medicine the belief is that life energy or chi (said chee) flows through channels in the body known as meridians. Any interruption or blockage of chi is related to health problems and illness. Acupuncture is here aimed at unblocking meridians and restoring the normal flow of chi.
- Western acupuncturists apply the technique after a medical diagnosis of the condition the patient is presenting with. Research has shown that acupuncture stimulates nerves in the area and in the central nervous system. This releases chemicals such as endorphins (pain-relieving), melatonin (sleep-promoting) and serotonin (enhances well-being). This mechanism is taken to be the source of the benefits of this treatment.
What Is Acupuncture Used For?
A wide variety of health conditions are treated by acupuncture although only a small number have scientific evidence to support their use.
Musculoskeletal conditions such as lower back pain, neck pain, other joint pains and arthritis are commonly treated. Acupuncture is also used to treat headaches and migraines. Some practitioners will treat a wider range of conditions and claim to be able to help with infertility, asthma and anxiety.
The list of conditions treated includes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), insomnia, depression, eczema, allergies and hay fever, fatigue, dental and postoperative pain.
The Evidence For Acupuncture
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends acupuncture as a treatment for migraine, tension-type headaches and chronic lower back pain.
Acupuncture may also help in a few other conditions such as neck pain, but for many problems there is no evidence acupuncture is useful.
Risks Of Acupuncture
Acupuncture is very safe if carried out by a qualified person, either a registered health care professional or a member of an accredited acupuncture organisation.
Known side effects are drowsiness, nausea or dizziness that occur in a small number of patients and settle very quickly. Bleeding or bruising at the needle sites can also occur.
Serious side effects such as infection or tissue damage are very rare indeed and can be avoided by making sure your practitioner is properly accredited.
Anyone taking anticoagulants for blood clotting, suffering from haemophilia or who has a metal allergy should discuss the wisdom of having acupuncture with their doctor before going ahead.
Your acupuncturist will ask you about your medical history and any medications you are taking to screen you for any risks of the procedure.
What Happens In An Acupuncture Session?
As with all medical and paramedical treatments, acupuncture practitioners start with an assessment of your problem and your general health. Your medical history is important to disclose and they may examine you physically to some degree.
Depending on where your pain problem is you may be asked to remove some clothes and to lie down on a couch.
Acupuncture needles are very fine needles a few centimetres long that are single-use, sterilised and are discarded after your treatment.
The practitioner chooses to insert a number of needles into acupuncture points at specific locations on the body. The number of points is typically between one and 12. Some of the needles will be placed very shallowly while other will be deeper into the muscles underneath. Needles are left in place for a few minutes or up to half an hour.
It’s normal to feel a dull ache or a tingling when the needles are inserted but this usually goes off quickly. You shouldn’t feel much pain if any and if you do, tell your acupuncturist right away.
Other techniques may be used with acupuncture needles such a rotating the needles or attaching a mild electric current, which is called electroacupuncture.
Types Of Acupuncture Treatment
Apart from the traditional methods with static needles there are several other types of treatment related to acupuncture:
- Acupressure is given by the pressure of the physiotherapist’s hands on acupuncture points or trigger points. It can be useful for people who dislike needles, for children and for people who are nervous.
- Trigger point acupuncture is applied at the trigger points of a muscle that is in localised spasm due to injury or poor body use. The treatment continues until the muscle is felt to relax and then removed.
- Electroacupuncture involves electrical impulses of a particular frequency being applied to the needles. A TENS machine can also be used in this way.
- Moxibustion and cupping apply warmth or heat to the acupuncture points or to a wider area. This is more the preserve of traditional Chinese medicine.
- Acupuncture - NHS Choices. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Acupuncture/Pages/Introduction.aspx
- AACP. Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists. http://www.aacp.org.uk/