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ACCUPUNCTURE - a patient's guide


Accupuncture is a complimentary therapy which has been successfully used to treat some pain and nausea conditions. This article looks at the therapy and the evidence for its use.




  • Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine which involves stimulation of special points on the body.
  • Fine needles are used to stimulate 360 acupuncture points in the body. Between four and 10 needles are normally used at each session.
  • Studies show acupuncture can relieve certain conditions, sometimes for only a short time.
  • Conditions that show evidence of being relieved by the use of acupuncture include nausea and pain conditions.
  • In general acupuncture is a safe treatment. The main concerns relate to the use of unhygienic needles.

What is it?

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine dating back up to 3000 years.

It involves the use of fine needles to stimulate certain acupuncture points in the body in an attempt to provide pain relief for some medical conditions.

Acupuncture theory is based on the concept of yin and yang (male and female), and that imbalances of these things in the body lead to illness. Acupuncture is used to help restore the balance.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body is controlled by a life force known as "Qi", and acupuncture points are used to change the flow of Qi when illness interferes with this.

From the Western point of view, traditional acupuncture points correspond to nerve junctions which can cause a pattern of referred pain such as muscles in the neck and shoulder relating to certain types of headaches. Needles are placed at any of the 360 acupuncture points to relieve pain in another region of the body.

There is evidence that acupuncture does work in some cases, especially for short-term pain relief. Studies have found acupuncture by a trained acupuncturist to be more effective than that carried out in an imitation procedure inserting needles at incorrect points.

However, the exact nature of how acupuncture works remains a mystery. Western science believes it may stimulate the release of brain chemicals to kill pain such as endorphins, serotonin and prostaglandins, but this theory has yet to be proven.

Acupuncture has gown in acceptance by the medical community over the past 20 years. About 2000 doctors and physiotherapists in the UK now use the technique as a complimentary therapy in their own practice.

What happens during acupuncture treatment?

A detailed patient history is taken by the practitioner including questions about diet and their environment. The practitioner will examine the person's tongue, colour of their face, quality of their pulse, and their stomach.

The practitioner may put pressure on different acupuncture points to see what triggers pain in other areas of the body.

Between four and 10 needles are used during a session and they are left there for up to 30 minutes, although some may only be left there for a few seconds or minutes.

The procedure is unlikely to cause pain because the needles are much finer than ones normally used for injections.

Other therapies such as massage, smoldering herbs over acupuncture points, and electricity to stimulate points, may also be used during a session.

Several sessions are usually required. There may be up to 12 sessions over a three month period, with further follow-up procedures after that.

Pain relief may have a delayed response with the effectiveness of treatments increasing over each session. The condition may return once treatment is stopped.

If acupuncture is not working it is advisable to stop treatment after 10 sessions. It should only take six treatments for some relief to be obtained.

What conditions can be treated with acupuncture?

Acupuncture is mainly used to help treat chronic conditions that are not life threatening.

A wide variety of conditions can be treated with acupuncture. Some of these include:

  • Common cold
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Bladder problems
  • Nausea and morning sickness
  • High blood pressure
  • Tinnitus
  • Muscular aches and pains
  • Headache
  • Migraine
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Arthritis
  • Hay fever
  • Menstrual pain
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Eye disorders (cataracts, short sightedness in children)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Addictions such as smoking or drug abuse
  • Pain disorders

Acupuncture can also be used to induce childbirth.

According a recent review in the British Medical Journal, scientific evidence shows that acupuncture is effective at relieving nausea, morning sickness, nausea from chemotherapy, drug abuse problems, pain disorders such as migraines, and stroke.

There is conflicting evidence over the use of acupuncture in the treatment of asthma and hay fever.

Some studies show acupuncture to be useful for osteoarthritis, and menstrual cramps although more evidence is necessary.

So far studies have found acupuncture is not effective in the treatment obesity, smoking cessation, or tinnitus.

There is insufficient evidence to assess the effectiveness of acupuncture on digestive problems, depression and anxiety.

Safety issues

While there are few safety concerns associated with acupuncture, there is evidence of serious life threatening consequences.

The main risk relates to unsterile needles being used.

The most serious reports of unsafe practises relate to cases of infection linked to the use of unhygienic needles.

There have been 126 documented cases of hepatitis associated with acupuncture and three cases of HIV infection, however a certain link has not been established in the HIV cases.

Other serious infections including one fatal case of staphylococcal septicaemia have also been reported. Acupuncture performed incorrectly can also cause bleeding, or damage to an organ.

The needles used in acupuncture must be sterilised or new ones used each time. Most acupuncturists use disposable needles. Ask about this before having the treatment.

Other safety issues include forgotten needles, low blood pressure for a short time, the possible aggravation of a complaint, and spinal cord injuries.

Acupuncture is not recommended for people with heart valve defects, and deep needle penetration is not safe for patients with bleeding disorders or those taking blood-thinning medication. Pregnant woman should avoid having needles placed on or near their stomach.

Professional acupuncturists train for up to four years in the UK. In New Zealand there is a four-year training programme in Wellington and Auckland. For more information about it telephone 0800 628 826.

Getting help

Choose an accredited or certified acupuncturist with a good reputation. It may pay to talk to other people who have had treatment or ask acupuncture training schools about acupuncturists in their area.

It also helps to have an accurate diagnosis before undergoing acupuncture treatment. It is advisable to talk to your doctor about your symptoms first. Pain or other symptoms that become worse should also be investigated by your doctor.

See also:

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