Acupuncture is a treatment derived from ancient Chinese medicine. Fine needles are inserted at certain sites in the body for therapeutic or preventative purposes.
It is used in many NHS GP practices, as well as in most pain clinics and hospices in the UK.
Acupuncture is often seen as a form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM).
How acupuncture works
Western medical acupuncture is the use of acupuncture following a medical diagnosis. It involves stimulating sensory nerves under the skin and in the muscles.
This results in the body producing natural substances, such as pain-relieving endorphins. It’s likely that these naturally released substances are responsible for the beneficial effects experienced with acupuncture.
A course of acupuncture usually creates longer lasting pain relief than when a single treatment is used.
Traditional acupuncture is based on the belief that an energy, or “life force”, flows through the body in channels called meridians. This life force is known as Qi (pronounced “chee”).
Practitioners who use acupuncture in the traditional way believe that when Qi does not flow freely through the body, this can cause illness. They also believe acupuncture can restore the flow of Qi, and so restore health.
Uses of acupuncture
Acupuncture practitioners – sometimes called acupuncturists – use acupuncture to treat a wide range of health conditions. However, the use of acupuncture is not always based on rigorous scientific evidence.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides guidelines for the NHS on the use of treatments and care of patients.
Currently, NICE only recommends considering acupuncture as a treatment option for:
- chronic tension-type headaches
Acupuncture is also often used to treat other musculoskeletal conditions (of the bones and muscles) and pain conditions, including:
- chronic pain, such as neck pain
- joint pain
- dental pain
- postoperative pain
However, the evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture compared with other treatments is unclear.
Acupuncture on the NHS
Acupuncture is sometimes available on the NHS, most often from GP surgeries or physiotherapists, although access is limited.
Most acupuncture patients pay for private treatment. The cost of acupuncture varies widely between practitioners.
If you’re being treated by an acupuncture practitioner for a health condition or are considering having acupuncture, it’s advisable to discuss this with your GP.
How acupuncture is performed
An initial acupuncture session usually lasts 20 minutes to 1 hour and involves an assessment of your general health, medical history and a physical examination, followed by insertion of the acupuncture needles.
Courses of treatment often involve several separate sessions, but this can vary.