Acupuncture originated in China, and other far eastern cultures, where it still features in mainstream healthcare, both as a stand-alone therapy and in combination with conventional western medicine. It is widely used and accepted all over the world: there are now over 1000 recommendations for treatment of more than 100 conditions, enshrined in clinical practice guidelines across 30 countries. Sections of our own NHS have made use of acupuncture in for example, mental health, midwifery and pain control.
Overall, an estimated four million treatments are now provided in the UK annually, and this has been cited as a substantial contribution to the nation’s healthcare (1). Of these, something like half a million treatments are given for pain relief of one sort or another eg. back, neck, nerve pain etc. Dr Stephen Birch, associate professor at the Kristiana University in Oslo, says his team has identified 4463 positive recommendations for acupuncture in 2175 different publications around the world. Of these, 3000 are for 146 pain indications.
Most people consult an acupuncturist wanting help with specific symptoms. They may for example, want to relieve lower back pain, chronic headaches, or the pain associated with osteoarthritis of the knee. Some people use acupuncture because they feel generally unwell but have no obvious diagnosis. Because traditional Chinese acupuncture is a treatment tailored especially for each individual, it often has the effect of helping the main complaint, whilst simultaneously providing a ripple of secondary benefits felt in one’s wider sense of health and wellbeing. This is a feature which is making acupuncture particularly attractive to many people nowadays. Western medical research into genetics and our gut biome is pointing towards a time when all medical interventions are tailored for the individual.
In the Articles menu on the right, you will find a lot of evidence from medical researchers worldwide, showing acupuncture’s effectiveness across a very broad range of conditions, and you are always welcome to telephone to enquire about a particular complaint. Additionally, the British Acupuncture Council has produced a set of research fact sheets on an even wider variety of conditions.
For some conditions, you may already be under the care of your GP or a specialist. Seeing an acupuncturist aswell is not usually a problem, and I would encourage you to tell your doctor you are doing so. GPs are interested to learn of other treatments which have helped their patients. In fact, Dutch researchers have found that patients whose GP has some additional training in complementary medicine, have up to 30% lower mortality and healthcare costs: they looked at data on 150 000 people collected from 2000 GPs, and found the savings resulted from fewer hospital stays and fewer prescription drugs (2).
UK researchers have found acupuncture to have significant and sustained benefits for people who frequently visit their GP with medically unexplained physical symptoms: eighty such adults took part in a randomised controlled trial across four London general practices. The acupuncture group showed reduced medication use, fewer GP visits,and a wide range of health benefits, including increased physical &/or mental energy, greater personal control, calmness and relaxation (British Journal of General Practice, June 2011).
We can also say with considerable confidence, that acupuncture is one of the safest forms of medical intervention in use in the UK today (3,4,5).
The University of York’s Department of Health Sciences has appointed a Professor of Acupuncture Research: Hugh MacPherson’s work includes conducting clinical trials and systematic reviews to evaluate the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of acupuncture for a variety of conditions. He has also conducted neuroimaging studies designed to explore the potential mechanisms of acupuncture.
Acupuncture research has provided several useful spin-offs for modern western medicine. These include advances in neuroimaging, an improved understanding of chronic pain, better clinical trial designs, and the TENS machine (6). Finally, patients naturally enough, are often curious to know how acupuncture works. For a scholarly review by two respected authors, of what we know about acupuncture in general in the twenty-first century, take a look at Acupuncture and the Emerging Evidence Base.
(1) Acupuncture in Practice: Mapping the Providers, the Patients and the Settings in a National Cross-Sectional Survey. British Medical Journal Open, January 2012.
(2) European Journal of Health Economics, on-line 22 June 2011.
(3) The York Acupuncture Safety Study: A Prospective Survey of 34000 Treatments by Traditional Acupuncturists. British Medical Journal 2001.
(4) Adverse Events following Acupuncture: Prospective Survey of 32000 Consultations with Doctors and Physiotherapists. British Medical Journal 2001.
(5) Patient Reports of Adverse Events Associated with Acupuncture Treatment: A Prospective National Survey. Qual Saf Health Care 2004.
(6) Unanticipated Insights into Biomedicine from the Study of Acupuncture. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 2016.