Chinese acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine used to re-balance the body's flow of energy (known as qi). The healthcare system is based on ancient principles that date back almost two thousand years.
A Chinese acupuncturist aims to manipulate and unblock stagnant qi. When this energy is flowing freely it is believed to encourage the body's natural healing process.
On this page we will look at how Chinese acupuncture works and how it can help. We will also explore how it differs to medical acupuncture and what you should expect from a typical session.
On this page
- How does Chinese acupuncture work?
- What causes energy disharmony?
- What is the difference between medical and Chinese acupuncture?
- Traditional acupuncture techniques
How does Chinese acupuncture work?
The underlying principle of this form of acupuncture is that illness and pain occur as a result of blocked energy (qi). Many things are thought to contribute to blocked energy, including stress, poor eating habits, injury and infection.
In Chinese acupuncture ultra-fine sterile needles are inserted into certain points on the body (where qi can be accessed). This re-establishes the flow of qi and is believed to trigger the body's natural healing abilities.
Pronounced 'chee', this is the common thread between most forms of traditional Chinese medicine. Qi is, put simply, energy. It embraces all aspects of energy - from physical energy that is held within the muscles to immaterial energy that comes with emotion and thought.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, a person is happy and healthy when all aspects of qi are dynamic, but also harmonious and balanced.
Qi is believed to flow through the body in much the same way as water flows through a network of rivers. These 'rivers' are called the meridians, or the meridian channels. There are certain points in the body where qi collects and pools, these are known as acupuncture points. It is here that a Chinese acupuncturist will be able to access and manipulate qi to restore balance.
How does a Chinese acupuncturist manipulate qi?
The practitioner will know where the acupuncture points are on the body and therefore where pools of qi accumulate. To manipulate the flow of qi, the practitioner will need to contact the qi at one or more points being needled - this is known as 'obtaining the qi' and is signalled by the arrival of the 'qi sensation'.
A Chinese acupuncturist should be able to feel the qi through the needle once it arrives at the site. They can then manipulate it using the needles. Once this has been done, the needles are removed.
What causes energy disharmony?
In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that too little or too much qi in the body leads to illness. This is why TCM practices focus on rebalancing qi. So, what exactly causes energy disharmony? The causes tend to fall in one of the following categories:
A deficiency could relate to a lack of qi within the body. It could also mean you aren't getting enough of the things that nourish you in life such as food, warmth, physical/mental stimulation, social interaction or even love.
It is believed that most of the qi we get in life comes from the food we eat and the air we breathe. For this reason, Chinese medicine places great importance on eating a nutritious diet and getting plenty of fresh, clean air.
The term excess refers to either the presence of something detrimental to our health (i.e. an infection) or too much of something, for example:
- dietary excess
- too much stress/anxiety
- excess toxins.
A key factor in avoiding energy disharmony is having the ability to determine what we need. According to Chinese medicine, we need mental clarity and mindfulness to achieve this. Having a mind that is stressed, multitasking or distracted can lead to disharmony. This is why many eastern practices involve being mindful, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi and qigong.
What is the difference between medical and Chinese acupuncture?
Medical acupuncture (also referred to as western acupuncture) is when the treatment is carried out after a medical diagnosis has been made. In this capacity, the treatment is based on scientific evidence that shows how acupuncture stimulates nerves under the skin and within the muscle tissue. This stimulation prompts the body to release pain-relieving substances like endorphins. It is these substances believed to be responsible for easing pain in medical acupuncture.
Medical acupuncture is practiced by doctors, physiotherapists and osteopaths. You can find out more on our dedicated medical acupuncture page.
Traditional or Chinese acupuncture instead believes that healing comes from rebalancing the body's qi.
Traditional acupuncture techniques
In terms of needling style and diagnostic techniques, there are several different schools of thought within Chinese acupuncture. All however, come from traditional Chinese medicine roots and have a holistic standpoint.
As well as using needles to stimulate the body's qi, some Chinese acupuncturists may use other techniques. These include:
- Cupping - Using glass or plastic cups, a vacuum seal is created to boost circulation and unblock qi. You can read more on our cupping page.
- Electro-acupuncture - This form of acupuncture uses a very low frequency electrical current through the needle. This is believed to increase blood flow and clear any stagnant qi.
- Guasha - This involves vigorous rubbing of the skin. Again, the purpose is to encourage blood flow and free up any blocked energy.
- Moxibustion - This is a technique that involves indirect heat and 'moxa' (therapeutic herbs). The idea is to warm and relax muscles and meridian points within the body.
- Tuina - This is a type of therapeutic massage used to stimulate meridian points, relax the muscles and improve the flow of qi.
What can Chinese acupuncture help with?
Acupuncture can be used to help with a variety of conditions. Commonly the practice is used to help alleviate pain in conditions like tension headaches and back pain. It can also be used to help with conditions with less obvious symptoms, such as infertility and anxiety.
Studies have shown some evidence that Chinese acupuncture may be beneficial for the following concerns:
- chronic back pain
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy
- nausea and vomiting after surgery
There have however been disagreements regarding the way these studies should be carried out. This means that while there is positive evidence, it does not prove that acupuncture definitely helps with these conditions.
Currently the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence only recommends acupuncture as a treatment option for the following:
- chronic tension headaches
- persistent lower back pain.
Many Chinese acupuncturists work with a greater range of conditions. Such concerns they typically address include:
- digestive disorders
- menstrual disorders.
It is important to note that Chinese acupuncture is a complementary therapy. This means that it should be used alongside (not instead of) conventional treatment. If you are suffering from a health concern, seek advice from a medical professional. Speak to your doctor before trying any complementary therapy to ensure you are suitable to try it.
What to expect
If you've decided to try Chinese acupuncture, it can be helpful to know what to expect from a session. Here we'll look at what you should do before your appointment, what to expect when you get there and how you'll feel after.
Before your appointment
It is advised to avoid eating a large or heavy meal before having acupuncture. This is just to make the experience more comfortable. If you're hungry try a light snack instead. As many Chinese acupuncturists look at your tongue when diagnosing, it is helpful to avoid any drinks that may alter the tongues colour (i.e. tea or coffee).
Dressing in loose clothing is also recommended. Many of the acupuncture points are located on the arms and legs, so wearing clothes that allow access to these areas is useful. When you arrive at your appointment, do let your acupuncturist know that you are new to Chinese acupuncture so they can explain the process and ensure you are comfortable throughout.
At your first appointment you will have a consultation with your acupuncturist. This is when you tell your acupuncturist about your health complaint and what you hope to achieve with the treatment. You will be asked about your symptoms, your medical history and any other treatments you have tried. You will also likely be asked about your lifestyle and overall well-being. Some questions may feel irrelevant to your health concern, but these give the acupuncturist a greater understanding of you as a person. As this is a holistic therapy, this is important.
Your acupuncturist may then examine your tongue and feel for areas of tension in the body. This is part of the diagnosis process and builds up the overall picture of your health.
You should be sure to tell the Chinese acupuncturist about any medications you're taking. Also, if you have tried any other therapies (complementary or conventional) you should inform your practitioner.
Your acupuncturist will put together a treatment plan based on the information you have given and diagnosis techniques used. As well as the number of sessions you're likely to require and the nature of the treatment itself, they may also recommend lifestyle or dietary adjustments.
The insertion of the needles
The needles used are pre-sterilised and very fine. They are also single-use; this means they will not have been used on anyone before you and they will be disposed of after your treatment.
You will be asked to sit or lie down, depending on where the needles need to go and what is more comfortable for you. You may need to adjust or remove certain pieces of clothing to give the practitioner access. If you are uncomfortable in any way, let your acupuncturist know.
The needles will be placed at various points in your body, depending on where your qi needs manipulating. Typically needles will be placed in one to 12 points on the body, depending on your specific symptoms. The needles will be inserted just under the skin in most cases, sometimes they are inserted slightly deeper to reach muscle tissue. Once they are in place, you will be left for up to 30 minutes.
What does it feel like?
Perhaps the most common question that arises when considering Chinese acupuncture is - will it hurt? The answer is no. The needles are very fine, so it won't feel like the needles doctors use when giving an injection.
Some people say they feel a slight tingling or a dull ache when the needles are inserted. This is thought to be a sign that your qi has reached the meridian point. There should not be any significant pain, if you feel pain let your acupuncturist know.
After your treatment
Chinese acupuncture has very few side effects. Most people feel relaxed and calm after a treatment. You may want to take this into account if you need to drive or go back to work after your treatment. You are also advised to avoid high intensity exercise and alcohol for several hours after your treatment.
Treatments like cupping and guasha may leave your skin with marks, however these should disappear within a couple of days. Drinking plenty of water and relaxing after your treatment is the best way to make the most of acupuncture.
Is it safe?
When carried out by a qualified practitioner, Chinese acupuncture is very safe. Any minor side effects that do occur are mild and self-correcting. Surveys have been conducted on both medical and traditional acupuncture, all of which report very low levels of such side effects.
There are however some people who may not be suited to acupuncture treatment. If you have a blood disorder or are taking anticoagulants you should seek medical advice before trying acupuncture. Additionally if you have any metal allergies or infections, these should be discussed with your acupuncturist first. Generally it is safe to have Chinese acupuncture when you are pregnant, but speak to your doctor first and advise your acupuncturist.
For peace of mind and to ensure best practice, you are advised to find a properly trained and qualified acupuncturist.
Finding a Chinese acupuncturist
At present there are no laws in the UK regulating Chinese acupuncture. There are professional bodies that acupuncturists can join. These voluntary regulatory bodies have minimum training standards (meaning that practitioners must have a certain level of training to join). They usually ask members to adhere to a code of ethics too.
Before having acupuncture you are advised to check that they have relevant qualifications and insurance, or are members of a professional body. Therapy Directory only lists those who can provide proof of either.
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