Acupuncture forms a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It involves fine, flexible needles being inserted at specific points on the body. The name is derived from the Latin words ‘acus’, meaning needle, and ‘punctura’, meaning to puncture. It has been used extensively in Chinese healthcare for many years, and is offered in Chinese hospitals as an alternative treatment. It originated in 100 BC in China, and spread to Korea in 6 AD, then on to Japan via medical missionaries. It came to Europe, then in the 20 C reached the USA and the western countries. Acupuncture can be used to treat many conditions. NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recommended that it should be available on the NHS for migraines, headaches and back pain. It is often used in conjunction with Chinese Herbal Medicine.
It is the belief in Chinese medicine that to be healthy, our bodies need to be in harmony. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves are all interconnected- what influences one will have an impact on the others. When pain or illness are present, it indicates that the body is out of balance. To become healthy again, the equilibrium needs to be restored. Symptoms are not treated in isolation, but are viewed in the context of the whole body. The aim is to establish the ‘root’ of the problem and treat it, not just the symptoms, or ‘branches’.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on the concept of ‘meridians’ and ‘qi’. Meridians are channels which run around the body connecting major organs to specific points of the body. Within the meridians our life force, called ‘qi’ flows. When our body is suffering from pain, illness or emotional problems, it is a sign that the flow of qi has been interrupted by a blockage somewhere in the meridian.
Different factors can cause blockages in the meridians. Elements such as wind, cold, damp and heat can invade the body, entering by our mouths and noses. The pathogen can work its way around the body, and can block a meridian, in a joint, for example. This is more likely if our immune system is weak. Different symptoms are experienced depending on the type of pathogen. For example, invasion of wind and damp can result in a swollen joint which feels heavy and aches. Gout is the result of wind, damp and heat invading the body. Other factors are stress, poor diet and lifestyle and lack of adequate exercise and sleep.
In a consultation with a practitioner, he would talk and listen to you about your problem, your health, lifestyle and medication you take. He would take note of your body language, smell and tone of voice. Your pulse would be taken, and your tongue examined. The aim would be to build up a pattern of ‘disharmony’, and make a diagnosis. The next step would be to treat the meridian with the blockage by inserting needles at specific points. For example, neck pain is often associated with the gall bladder meridian, which runs from the outer point of the eye, around the head, into the neck and shoulder, then down the side of the body to the little toe.
Treatment involves relaxing in a chair or on a bed, whist fine needles are inserted. They remain in place for approximately 20 minutes. You should not feel pain, but possibly a dull ache. Sometimes the needles are rotated, sometimes a mild electric current is passed through them. You will probably need a course of treatments. As the meridians link areas of the body, you may find that symptoms unrelated to the original problem clear as well as the presenting issue. After treatment you may experience a feeling of relaxation. Tiredness is a possible side effect.
Cupping is a procedure sometimes used in conjunction with acupuncture. The ancient Egyptians used it in 1550 BC, and in China in the 4th century. Heated glass cups are placed on specific points along a meridian which create suction as they cool. The back is a common place which they are used on. The aim is to stimulate the flow of blood and qi. The gentle movement of skin and tissue into the cups releases connective tissue and allows muscles to move more freely. Pain can be relieved, and the movement of blood and lymph encouraged. This in turn helps toxins to leave via the circulatory system. The cups are left in place for 5-10 minutes. Cupping is commonly used for musculo-skeletal problems, asthma and eczema. There will be bruising where the cups were placed, which will fade. Moxibustion involves moxa from dried mugwort being burnt and applied to the skin. It is thought to help with chronic conditions such as arthritis.
There are many varied conditions which can be treated by acupuncture. Depression is thought to be a symptom that liver qi is stagnant. Acupuncture will encourage the flow of qi which relieves the symptoms. It can also be used for chronic pain, and has found to be effective1. Acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release neurochemicals and endorphins which encourage self-healing. It has been used widely for infertility problems. It encourages blood to go to the reproductive organs, and helps patients to relax. Stress affects the function of the hypothalamic pituitary-ovarian axis (HPOA) which can lead to hormonal imbalances, and infertility. Acupuncture encourages the release of beta endorphins in the brain, which affects the hormone levels positively. When a woman feels stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, and the ovarian arteries constrict. As a result, the blood flow is lessened. Acupuncture inhibits this response, and blood flow increases. This enhances the environment for ovarian follicles to develop. It also increases the blood flow to the uterus and improves the thickness of the endometrial lining. The chances of an embryo implanting are increased as a result2.
- Vickers, A ‘Acupuncture for Chronic Pain’. J.A.M.A. 2014 311 (9) p955-956.
- Stener-Victoria, E ‘Effects and Mechanisms of Acupuncture in the Reproductive System’. Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical 2010 Vol 157 issue 1-2 p46-51.