Chinese acupuncture

Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Therapy Directory Content Team

Last updated 9th August 2022 | Next update due 8th August 2025

Chinese acupuncture, also known as traditional acupuncture, is a branch of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that has been used for thousands of years. Today, traditional acupuncture is considered one of the most popular forms of complementary medicine used worldwide.

What is Chinese acupuncture?

Chinese acupuncture uses fine needles, inserted at certain points of the body to promote the flow of energy (also known as Qi) around the body’s energy lines or meridians. Tradition believes that it is when this energy is blocked, that ill health and disease develop. Acupuncture works to aid the flow of this energy. When our energy lines are balanced, we are able to maintain good health and well-being.

The key focus of Chinese acupuncture is that it focuses on the individual, not the illness. Traditional acupuncturists believe that illness and pain occur when the body’s Qi is blocked.

In Chinese acupuncture, these energy blockages are most commonly caused by emotional or physical stress, poor nutrition, infection or injury. By inserting these incredibly fine needles into targeted parts of the body (known as acupuncture points) the acupuncturist can work to free the flow of energy and restore balance to the body, triggering the natural healing response.

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The principles of Chinese acupuncture

The belief behind traditional acupuncture is that illness and pain occur as a result of blocked energy (or Qi) in the body. Acupuncture is the inserting of fine needles into specific points of the body, to re-establish the flow of energy and trigger the body’s natural healing ability.

Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) is the common thread between most forms of traditional Chinese medicine. Your Qi is your energy - the physical energy in your muscles, and your emotional energy, fuelled by thought and feeling. According to traditional Chinese medicine, humans are most happy and healthy when this energy is harmonious and balanced.

This life energy is believed to flow through the body, just as water flows through a river. In TCM these rivers are called meridians, or the meridian channels. In certain points of the body, this energy will collect and pool - these are known as acupuncture points. It is these points that are targeted and manipulated in Chinese acupuncture.

What causes energy disharmony?

In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that too little, or too much Qi can lead to illness. If you’re experiencing an ‘energy deficiency’ it could be that you’re not getting enough of the things that nourish you in life. This may be in terms of food, warmth, social interaction, physical and mental stimulation 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.

If you are experiencing an ‘energy excess’, it could be that you are unwell (such as an infection) or getting too much of something, such as too much stress, anxiety or overthinking.

In TCM, 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 or distracted can result in disharmony. This is why many Eastern practices involve the mind and body, such as yoga, meditation, Tai chi and qi gong.

Chinese acupuncture techniques

In terms of needling style and diagnostic techniques, there are several different schools of thought within Chinese acupuncture. All, however, come from the roots of traditional Chinese medicine. Traditional acupuncture is holistic - it’s not focused on the symptoms, but on the whole body.

As well as using needles to stimulate the body’s Qi, there are several other techniques that may be used and can be used as stand-alone treatments. These include:

Cupping - Using glass or plastic cups, a vacuum seal is created to boost circulation and unblock energy. Commonly used as a complementary therapy to help treat health concerns, such as back and neck pain, migraines and anxiety.

Tuina - Translating to ‘push-grasp’, tuina is a type of therapeutic massage, used to stimulate meridian points, relax the muscles and improve the flow of Qi. Tuina techniques vary from gentle stroking movements to a more focused deep-tissue method.

Guasha - Guasha is a cleansing technique, which involves vigorous rubbing of the skin with a specialised instrument. Guasha is used to stimulate blood flow and clear any blocked Qi, which is believed to be the cause of muscle and joint pain.

Moxibustion - Moxibustion is a technique that involves indirect heat and ‘moxa’ (therapeutic herbs) to warm and relax the muscles and meridian points within the body.

Electro-acupuncture - Electro-acupuncture is a specialised form of acupuncture that uses a very low-frequency electrical current through the needle. Electro-acupuncture is believed to increase blood flow, relax the muscles and clear any blocked Qi.

What to expect in a session

Your practitioner will need to know the reasons why you’re seeking acupuncture treatment and have a general understanding of your overall health and lifestyle habits. During your initial consultation, they may ask you questions about your medical history, as well as sleeping habits, diet and mental health.

When talking about why you’re seeking acupuncture (migraines, for example) the practitioner may ask you to explain the symptoms you’re experiencing, how long they last and how frequent they are. In order to make a diagnosis, and find the right treatment approach for you, they will need to know as much about you and your symptoms as possible.

If this is your first experience with acupuncture, do let your practitioner know. This way they can go the extra mile in explaining what happens, and ensure you are completely comfortable. 

Once the practitioner has a good understanding of why you are seeking treatment, they will make a diagnosis and devise a treatment plan, tailored to you and your symptoms. This may also include lifestyle and dietary advice, too.

How can it help?

Acupuncture is believed to have many benefits and can affect people in different ways. Reports suggest it may be effective in treating chronic back or neck pain, as well as supporting general mental health and well-being. In fact, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) currently recommends acupuncture as a treatment option for migraines and chronic tension-type headaches.

For the treatment itself, your acupuncturist will use very fine, single-use sterilised needles, to stimulate specific points on your body. The acupuncture points targeted won’t necessarily be located near your area of pain or discomfort, however. Because energy meridians flow through the whole body, the point needed to treat the pain may be located elsewhere. For example, if you’re experiencing headaches, your practitioner may focus the needles in the hand or foot, to manipulate the blocked Qi affecting your head.

How does a Chinese medicine acupuncturist manipulate Qi?

Your practitioner will know where the acupuncture points are on the body, and so will know where the pools of energy accumulate. To manipulate the flow of Qi, they 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 acupuncture practitioner should be able to feel the Qi through the needle once it arrives at the site. Here they can use the needles to manipulate the Qi and re-establish flow. Once this is achieved, the needles are removed.

You will be asked to sit or lie down for your treatment, depending on where the needles need to go and what is most comfortable for you. You may also need to adjust or remove certain pieces of clothing, to allow for access of the needles. If you are uncomfortable in any way, let your acupuncturist know - your comfort is paramount.

The needles will be placed in the targeted points of your body. Typically, the number of points targeted will range between one and 12, depending on your symptoms. The needles are inserted just under the skin, though in some cases, they are inserted slightly deeper in order to reach the muscle tissue. Once in place, you will be left for up to 30 minutes.

Does it hurt?

Perhaps the most common question, but the answer is no.

The needles are incredibly fine, and so will not feel the same as a medical injection you get at the doctors. Some people do report experiencing a slight tingling sensation or feeling a dull ache when the needles are inserted. This is believed to be a sign that your Qi has reached the meridian point. There shouldn’t be any significant pain, however. So if you are concerned, let your acupuncturist know.

Following treatment

Many people find acupuncture incredibly relaxing, often feeling calm following treatment. It is common to feel quite tired and drowsy after acupuncture, so do consider this prior to treatment, to ensure you can return home safely.

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