Acupuncture has existed as part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years but it's only in the past 30 years or so that it has become included into general medicine. It's used mostly as a complementary treatment (one given alongside conventional treatments).
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe that energy called ‘qi’ flows around your body in channels (meridians). Equal and opposite properties called yin and yang are thought to become unbalanced, causing illness. The needles used in acupuncture aim to restore this balance.
The way acupuncture works is being increasingly understood in general medicine. It's based on the idea that acupuncture needles stimulate nerve endings and alter the way your brain functions, particularly in relation to how your body responds to pain.
Acupuncture is used to treat a range of conditions including lower back pain, migraine and knee pain.
An acupuncture practitioner should have some training in anatomy and physiology, as well as in the use of acupuncture. However, currently the title of acupuncturist isn't protected. This means that anyone can call him or herself an acupuncturist regardless of what training he or she has done.
There are regulatory bodies that acupuncturists can join, which set standards for the practice of acupuncture. To find an acupuncturist who practises traditional acupuncture, check the members list on the British Acupuncture Council website. To become a member, acupuncturists must have a minimum of three years training in acupuncture.
If you would like to contact a healthcare professional who practises medical acupuncture, check with The British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS) website. All BMAS acupuncturists are qualified and registered health professionals who have also had additional training in medical acupuncture.
It's important to visit your GP before having acupuncture to help diagnose your condition and to ensure that acupuncture is an appropriate treatment for you.
If you decide to have acupuncture, you will first have a detailed consultation. Your acupuncturist will ask you questions about your medical history, diet, lifestyle and health problems. He or she may also examine you. You can ask any questions you might have.
If you're having traditional acupuncture, your acupuncturist cannot make a medical diagnosis as he or she isn't trained to do so. However, he or she can advise you on a course of acupuncture treatment.
In your first consultation, your acupuncturist may pay particular attention to your tongue and pulse. Practitioners of traditional acupuncture will use this is to assess your physical health and flow of energy. It’s important not to eat or drink anything immediately before your appointment that may cause discolouration of your tongue (such as coffee).
Your acupuncturist may feel for areas of muscular pain or tension (trigger points) in the tissues under your skin. There are approximately 400 trigger or acupuncture points in your body, which, if stimulated with needles, may affect how certain organs work.
You're likely to have a number of needles, up to 12, inserted half a centimetre to several centimetres into your skin. The sensation when the needle goes in is often described as a tingling or dull ache. The needles will target a selection of acupuncture points in your body. Your acupuncturist may insert each needle and immediately remove it, or leave the needles in place for up to 30 minutes.
Your acupuncturist may select different acupuncture points during your course of treatment. The length of your course of treatment will depend on what you’re being treated for. Ask your acupuncturist for advice.
Traditional acupuncturists may use additional techniques such as moxibustion – this is the burning of a herb just above the surface of your skin. The herb is either attached to an acupuncture needle or held in a cigar-shaped stick. Acupuncturists believe this warms the acupuncture points and encourages your body's energy – ‘qi’ – to flow smoothly.
Cupping is another technique where heated cups are placed on the skin to create a vacuum and stimulate an acupuncture point.
Guasha is a technique where your acupuncturist will vigorously rub your skin to increase blood flow and clear your ‘qi’.
In medical acupuncture, as with traditional acupuncture, your practitioner will assess your condition and your treatment will be tailored to you.
It's likely that fine needles will be inserted through your skin and left in position briefly. Sometimes the acupuncturist will apply manual or low voltage electrical stimulation to the needle to assist the process. The number of needles varies but may be only as few as two or three.
You may have treatment sessions once a week to begin with, then at longer intervals if your condition responds. A typical course of treatment lasts five to eight sessions.
If your practitioner feels that your condition can't be treated with acupuncture, he or she will recommend that you see your GP or an appropriate specialist.
Several hundred studies have looked at the outcomes of acupuncture on a variety of diseases and conditions. Some of these have been controlled studies and have involved using a placebo (dummy) treatment to see how it compares with acupuncture. Some trials have compared acupuncture with a form of treatment that looks like acupuncture, where the needles pierce the skin but don’t target acupuncture points. This is called sham acupuncture.
Some studies have suggested that acupuncture works better than sham acupuncture for treating certain symptoms. For others, there was no difference.
There is good scientific evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture in relieving:
Even though the evidence is reasonably good for these conditions, for other conditions the research is less rigorous and therefore less reliable. Acupuncture is used in many other common illnesses, for example depression and asthma, but the evidence isn't clear and more studies are needed to test its effectiveness.
It's also claimed that acupuncture improves the rate of pregnancy in women having in vitro fertilisation, although more research is needed to confirm this.
As with every treatment, there are some risks associated with acupuncture. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your acupuncturist to explain how these risks apply to you.
Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the treatment. Side-effects of acupuncture may include:
Complications are when problems occur during or after the treatment. Although very rare, potential complications of acupuncture include:
It’s important to take special precautions if you're pregnant – tell your acupuncturist if you are or could be pregnant.