Acupuncture: an ancient art validated by modern science
Thousands of years before modern X rays, scans and blood tests, acupuncturists used methodical and detailed observation of the body to develop a complete system of diagnosis. The language of Chinese medicine is very different to the medical language that is familiar to us, but nonetheless modern science has now validated some of what traditional acupuncturists hold to be true; more is now known about the connections between mind and body and the impact of stress; myofascial pathways have been discovered along the meridians used by traditional acupuncturists. New discoveries about how the body’s cells communicate lend credibility to the concept of Qi. While traditional acupuncture has been used for thousands of years, and is the main system of healthcare for a large part of the world's population, there is now also a rapidly growing modern evidence base for the efficacy of acupuncture (the Acupuncture Research Resource Centre or the British Acupuncture Council)
How to choose an acupuncturist
Acupuncture is not regulated in this country. Unfortunately this means anyone can buy a box of needles and call themselves an acupuncturist, so here is how to find a qualified, safe practitioner who is right for you
Choose a type of acupuncture
Traditional acupuncture practitioners have completed over 3,600 hours of study meeting World Health Organisation standards. Their training includes Western and Chinese medical theory and acupuncture. They are qualified to use acupuncture to treat the widest range of conditions and each treatment is entirely personalised to your health needs
Medical acupuncture is practised by people with medical training, eg doctors, midwives, and is used for fewer conditions than traditional acupuncture. Training can be up to 6 months, or as little as 2 days.
Dry needling is practised by manual therapists such physiotherapists and osteopaths and uses set treatment protocols for musculoskeletal problems. Training can be up to 6 months, or as little as 2 days.
Ask about qualifications
In the absence of statutory regulation, it is essential to check before you start treatment. You can often do this online, eg at the website of the practitioner's professional body.
Ask what type of acupuncture they practice, how long their acupuncture training was, what qualification they gained, who awarded the qualification, and whether they belong to a professional body
Ask about their experience
Ask what experience they have in treating people with your symptoms or condition. You can ask about the success rate, but this can be difficult to answer as every case is unique
Decide if you like them
If you are satisfied with all of the above, decide if you feel comfortable with this person. Have a look at their website, ask around to see if any of your friends have had treatment with them, contact them for a chat before deciding whether or not to start treatment
Why do people come for acupuncture?
People who are new to acupuncture are used to going to the doctor to talk about one health problem, and people usually come to see me for the first time in the same way, for example because they are suffering from migraines or insomnia. As we talk about these symptoms in the context of overall health, people quickly realise that this holistic approach makes a lot of sense. As well as focusing on the problem that made you seek help, my aim is to restore balance and harmony, and thereby bring about improvements to overall health, such as sleep, digestion, energy and mood.
Other techniques: cupping, moxibustion, electroacupuncture
Cupping, the placing of vacuumed cups on the skin, has remained a traditional treatment in some communities, and depending on where you live, you may see high street clinics devoted to cupping. You may also have seen celebrities showing off cupping marks, (Gwyneth Paltrow in a backless dress at a New York film premiere back in 2004 and more recently Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps). I often use cupping for muscle pain or congested lungs. Research at the University of Portsmouth showed that the erythrocyte sedimentation rate falls after cupping, showing that inflammation has been reduced. I may use moxibustion (burning a herb called moxa, a particular type of mugwort) to bring focused heat to certain areas of the body,. You may have read about moxibustion being used to stop bleeding, or to encourage a baby in the breech position to turn. I may use electroacupuncture if something stronger than manual acupuncture is needed, for example with painful musculoskeletal conditions, or sometimes during the stimulation phase of IVF if the response is poor.
Does acupuncture hurt?
Acupuncture needles are tiny, very slender and fine, completely unlike the hypodermic syringes that come to mind when we think of needles.
Most of my new patients are surprised and relieved to find that acupuncture doesn't particularly hurt, and the brief twinge when a needle is inserted is worth it for the feeling of relaxation that treatment brings . "It feels a lot like a large martini and half a valium" said Grace Dent in The Guardian Weekend after treatment with me