Medical acupuncture is a modern adaptation of the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture. It is defined as a therapeutic technique that involves the insertion of fine needles into certain points across the body to encourage healing and pain relief.
On this page
- How is medical acupuncture different from Chinese acupuncture?
- What to expect in a medical acupuncture appointment
- Side effects of medical acupuncture
- Does it really work?
How is medical acupuncture different from Chinese acupuncture?
The main difference between medical acupuncture and traditional Chinese acupuncture is that the ancient beliefs of 'yin', 'yang', and the energy 'qi' is substituted for a combined knowledge of physiology and pathology, anatomy, and the common principals of evidence based medicine.
Medical acupuncture is practiced by healthcare practitioners and is generally regarded as part of conventional medicine. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) specifically recommends the use of acupuncture for lower back pain1.
What to expect in a medical acupuncture appointment
If you choose to undergo medical acupuncture, you will be referred to a medical acupuncture-trained doctor, who will diagnose you using Western medical methods. He or she will probably also ask questions about your habits, lifestyle and medical history. Treatments will only be administered once a week for a maximum of six weeks.
Is it hygienic?
Only sterile, single-use, disposable needles will be used.
Does it hurt?
The needles are very fine, so it will not feel like having an
injection or a blood test, which uses needles with a cutting edge. The sensation varies from person to person. Some people feel a slight sharpness, whereas other people feel nothing at all.
Things you need to tell your doctor before a medical acupuncture appointment
Make sure you inform the doctor of the following before undergoing acupuncture treatment:
- if you have ever fainted, had a fit or experienced a 'funny turn'
- if you have a bleeding disorder (haemophillia)
- if you have damaged heart valves or a particular risk of infection
- if you have a pacemaker or any other implants of an electrical nature
- if you are taking anti-coagulants or any kind of medication.
Side effects of medical acupuncture
- Do not drive straight after your first appointment as you may feel drowsy.
- Some people do faint during treatment but this is very rare.
- There is a slight possibility of minor bleeding or bruising after the insertion of acupuncture needles.
Does it really work?
There have been a number of studies looking into the validity and benefits of acupuncture as an accepted form of medical practice.
One popular contention is that acupuncture only appears to work by inducing a placebo effect. A placebo effect is what happens when a person believes they have been treated. Recovery and pain relief is thought to happen as a result of this sense of belief and expectation. However, one study published in the NeuroImage journal claims to have found scientific evidence that acupuncture does in fact have a direct effect on the body.
Researchers at Southampton University and University College London used PET scans to monitor what was happening in the brains of 14 participants during three separate 'interventions'.
- In the first intervention, the participants were prodded lightly with blunt needles and informed that the needles would not penetrate the skin or hold any therapeutic value.
- In the second intervention, the participants were prodded with specially designed false needles that telescoped in on themselves upon contact with the skin, in the same way a stage dagger does. However, the patients were told that the needles would penetrate the skin, and that the treatment would hold therapeutic value.
- The third intervention involved the insertion of real acupuncture needles into traditional acupuncture points.
The results of the PET scan showed significant differences in brain activity during each separate intervention.
- During the first intervention when the participants knew they were not having needles inserted in them, the area of the brain associated with the sensation of touch became active.
- During the second intervention when the participants thought they were having needles inserted in them, the area associated with pain relief became active.
- During the third intervention when the participants were having needles inserted in them, the area associated with pain relief became active, but interestingly, so did another part. This region of the brain is known as the insular, thought to be involved in the judgment of pain.
These results do suggest that medical acupuncture can affect the body beyond the placebo effect. However, many experts still demand further research and you are encouraged to discuss acupuncture with your GP before deciding on it as a course of treatment.
Acupuncture within physiotherapy
More and more physiotherapists are integrating medical acupuncture into their approach to help manage pain and inflammation. Physiotherapists work on the premise that acupuncture can help to relieve pain by stimulating the brain and nervous system to produce pain-relieving chemicals.
The chemicals released during acupuncture (including endorphins) are thought to help promote the body's natural healing process, which can be essential in the treatment of painful musculoskeletal problems.
Acupuncture for palliative care
Medical acupuncture is increasingly being used in tandem with conventional medicine as part of a palliative care plan. Although the techniques will be more gentle and soft, the benefits can be numerous for palliative care patients - helping to manage the symptoms and side effects of medical treatments and relieve stress.
What qualifications and experience should therapists have?
Currently there are no laws in place in the UK regarding the level of training required to become a medical acupuncture practitioner. However, those seeking the therapy often find it reassuring to know their practitioner is trained to a high standard and is working to certain levels of good practice.
There are many professional associations in existence which have taken on a self-regulatory role for medical acupuncture, requiring members to meet certain eligibility requirements and abide by a code of ethics and complaints procedure.
Whilst the eligibility requirements will differ for each professional organisation, generally potential members will need to provide evidence of the appropriate acupuncture training as well as proof that they are a medical professional such as a doctor, nurse of physiotherapist etc.
1National Institue for Health and Clinical Excellence (2009) Low back pain, Early management of persistent non-specific low back pain
2BBC News (2005) Acupuncture 'more than a placebo'
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