Acupuncture Guide

Acupuncture is a practice that dates back thousands of years, and as such is one that, despite being incorporated into modern medicine, is surrounded by a miasma of misunderstanding and myth. In truth, acupuncture has undergone many changes in the course of becoming part of modern healthcare, and in this article we look at what modern acupuncture is and how it is used in the UK.

Acupuncture’s origins

Acupuncture is classed as a complementary or alternative medicine (usually abbreviated to CAM) originating in ancient china. The practice remains an important part of Chinese medicine, and in China and many other parts of the world practitioners of acupuncture still follow the traditional ethos of this ancient therapy.

As trade between the Far East and Europe increased through the middle ages and onwards, European traders and travellers became exposed to many Chinese traditions and customs, including acupuncture.

What is the basis of acupuncture?

There are two distinct theories of acupuncture, one of which is a traditional view based on the ancient Chinese tradition, the second of which is a modern approach to the treatment.

The ancient Chinese believed that all living things possessed a life force called Qi or Chi, this energy would travel around the body via a system of meridians specialised channels whose only purpose was to ensure the healthy supply of Qi to the body as a whole.

Acupuncture was developed in response to the belief that disease was caused by disruptions in the flow of Qi to the various parts of the body. By inserting extremely fine acupuncture needles into particular points of the body, the disruptions in the flow of Qi can be remedied, restoring health.

Based on these theories Chinese acupuncturists have devised complex maps and schematics of how Qi flows through the body’s systems of meridians. Traditional practitioners are well versed in these theories, and use this understanding of how meridians are arranged in the body to remedy pain and a variety of conditions.

The more modern approach to acupuncture is based on the theory that acupuncture needles can stimulate muscle tissue and nerves to alleviate pain and other symptoms. Evidence of the effectiveness of acupuncture based on these remains extremely controversial and subject to much debate. While acupuncture has proven to be effective in relieving pain, muscle tension, and some other conditions, these effects have yet to be proven with consistency and reliability. Moreover the mechanisms by which acupuncture may achieve these therapeutic ends remain unclear, particularly as ancient Chinese diagrams of Qi flow and meridians do not correspond to known nervous and musculoskeletal elements that could account for the therapeutic effects of the practice.

How is acupuncture performed?

As mentioned above, acupuncture is performed through the use of minute, specialised needles. These may sound daunting, but are designed in such a way as to be virtually painless when inserted into the skin. Needles are usually made up of a stainless steel wire, and should be sterilised to avoid the risk of infection. Needles vary immensely in length, and which needles are used and when depends on the practitioner, their philosophy and acupuncture training, and where the needle is being inserted.

Insertion technique is important to minimising pain. We experience pain through the outermost layers of the complex structure that is our skin, and when applied quickly, these needles can cause next to no pain at all. This is extremely variable however, and a range of investigations into the pain associated with needle insertion have been performed in recent years, all reaching varying conclusions about the practice. While some reports describe needle insertion as virtually painless, many others report the process as being painful to varying degrees.

Acupuncture in the UK

How, when, where, and why acupuncture is used here in the UK varies immensely based on individual practices and their effectiveness. Generally speaking however acupuncture is largely used in the UK as a treatment for pain, muscle tightness, arthritis, and nausea.

Acupuncture is available from a variety of different sources, including some registered medical health professionals like physiotherapists who can pursue qualifications in the field. That being said, most acupuncturists in the UK will be alternative medicine practitioners, and so care must be taken when using these providers to ensure your own safety.

It is important to emphasise that from a medical perspective the evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture remains unclear and inconclusive. NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) is an organisation which makes recommendations based on existing evidence as to whether particular therapies are useful and when, and the current NICE recommendation for the use of acupuncture is limited to the treatment of lower back pain.

This means that as far as NICE is concerned the only convincing evidence of effective acupuncture has been in the treatment of lower back pain. The other symptoms shown by other sources proven to effectively resolve under acupuncture are nausea and migraines, however these don’t come under NICE’s recommendations. There is no scientific evidence to support traditional theories of Qi flow, or even that such a thing as Qi exists.

Remember that if you are interested in pursuing acupuncture, it is worth taking a careful look into any practices or practitioners you might employ. This includes looking for independent reviews, investigating the practitioner’s qualifications, and ensuring that the practice as a whole is clean and hygienic.

Where does acupuncture come from? ยป