Acupuncture - could it help you?

Caroline Cassidy

A branch of 4,000-year-old Chinese traditional medicine, acupuncture has long been used for a wide range of ailments. If you have an issue that conventional medicine has failed to resolve and want to try acupuncture as an alternative therapy, here's what you need to know.


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What is it?
According to Chinese traditional medicine, the body's 'life force', known as Chi or Qi, flows through certain channels called meridians. Practitioners believe that illness, pain and other ailments can be caused when the Chi is blocked from flowing freely.

Acupuncture involves inserting tiny needles into the skin at various points along the meridians, restoring the body's Chi flow. Advocates also believe that the practice stimulates nerves and muscle tissue, bringing added benefits.

What can it help with?
Acupuncturists treat a variety of physical problems, from arthritis and asthma to high blood pressure, skin conditions, insomnia and pain of any kind. It is also often used to help with emotional problems such as anxiety and depression.

At present, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends acupuncture as an option only for lower back pain. Though more research is needed to provide scientific evidence that it is effective for the full range as claimed by traditional Chinese medicine, the NHS advises that there has been positive evidence that it may be an effective treatment for back pain, dental pain, headaches, nausea after an operation, and osteoarthritis of the knee.

What can I expect?
On your first visit, an acupuncturist will typically assess your general health and ask about your medical history, as well as enquiring as to your specific issue and any treatment you may have had for the problem.

Following a physical examination, the insertion of the needles will begin, most commonly with the patient in a lying position. You may be asked to remove some of your clothing in order that the acupuncturist can work on specific areas.

The needles themselves are extremely fine, around 30mm long, and should always be pre-sterilised and disposed of after use. It is claimed that there are over 500 acupuncture points on the body, but a practitioner will typically insert between six and twenty needles, depending on the medical problem. Once in place, they can remain in position for up to 30 minutes.

You should feel no significant pain from the needles (and should let your acupuncturist know if that is the case). In many cases they are not felt at all, but there may be a tingling or itching sensation at the site of the needle.

Are there any risks?
Some patients experience mild pain, bleeding or bruising at the site of the needle, and drowsiness is a common side effect. However, according to the NHS, the risk of serious complications arising from acupuncture treatment is rare.

Those who suffer from blood disorders such as haemophilia or those taking anticoagulant medication are not advised to have acupuncture, and if you are pregnant it is essential that you tell your practitioner as certain acupuncture points should not be used during pregnancy.

Where can I find a practitioner?
Though there is no statutory regulation for acupuncturists in England, they are required to register with their local authority, which must ensure that healthy and safety laws are adhered to as regards premises and equipment.

There are also a number of voluntary organisations in the UK, which require member practitioners to agree to certain codes of practice. These organisations will also list qualified acupuncturists in your area, so try the British Register of Complementary Practitioners, the British Acupuncture Council or the British Medical Acupuncture Society for more information.

Have you tried acupuncture? Did it help you? Leave your comments below...