What is traditional Chinese acupuncture?
Traditional acupuncture is a healthcare system based on ancient principles which go back nearly two thousand years. It has a very positive model of good health and function, and looks at pain and illness as signs that the body is out of balance. The overall aim of acupuncture treatment, then, is to restore the body’s equilibrium.
What makes this system so uniquely suited to modern life is that physical, emotional and mental are seen as interdependent, and reflect what many people perceive as the connection between the different aspects their lives.
Based on traditional belief, acupuncturists are trained to use subtle diagnostic techniques that have been developed and refined for centuries. The focus is on the individual, not their illness, and all the symptoms are seen in relation to each other. Each patient is unique; two people with the same western diagnosis may well receive different acupuncture treatments.
Traditional acupuncturists believe that the underlying principle of treatment is that illness and pain occur when the body’s qi, or vital energy, cannot flow freely. There can be many reasons for this; emotional and physical stress, poor nutrition, infection or injury are among the most common. By inserting ultra-fine sterile needles into specific acupuncture points, a traditional acupuncturist seeks to re-establish the free flow of qi to restore balance and trigger the body’s natural healing response.
Until the 1940s, when the Chinese government commissioned the development of a uniform stem of diagnosis and treatment, somewhat misleadingly referred to as TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), nearly all training had been apprentice-style with masters and within families. The same applied when acupuncture travelled overseas to Japan and South East Asia.
As a consequence of this there are many different styles of acupuncture which share a common root but are distinct and different in their emphasis. You may read of TCM, Five Elements, Stems and Branches, Japanese Meridian Therapy, and many others, all of which have their passionate devotees. The BAcC, though, has long embraced this plurality under the heading “unity in diversity” and sees the variety of approaches as the mark of a healthy profession.
Traditional acupuncture has a long history of adapting to new cultures in which it is practised. Its growing popularity and acceptance in the West may well promote yet more new and exciting variations on the ancient themes.
A growing body of evidence-based clinical research shows that traditional acupuncture safely treats a wide range of common health problems.
How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncturists insert very fine needles at precisely located points to connect with your body’s qi. They will decide which points are right for you after a detailed consultation covering every aspect of your health and lifestyle. The aim is to direct the flow of qi to trigger your body’s healing response and to restore physical, emotional and mental equilibrium. Treatment is designed to affect your whole being as well as your symptoms so, as the condition being treated improves, you may notice other health problems resolve and an increased feeling of wellbeing.
Where are the acupuncture points?
Acupuncture points are located at precise places along interconnected pathways that map the whole body, including the head, trunk and limbs. The most commonly used acupuncture points are on the lower arms and legs.
What are the benefits of acupuncture?
A growing body of evidence-based clinical research is discovering how the body responds to acupuncture and its benefits for a wide range of common health conditions. A lot of people have acupuncture to relieve specific aches and pains, such as osteoarthritis of the knee, TMJ, headaches and low back pain, or for common health problems like an overactive bladder. Other people choose acupuncture when they can feel their bodily functions are out of balance, but they have no obvious diagnosis. And many have regular treatments because they find it so beneficial and relaxing.
Does acupuncture hurt?
Acupuncture needles are so fine that most people don’t feel them being inserted. It is normal to feel a mild tingle or dull ache as the acupuncturist adjusts the needle to direct Qi. While the needles are in place most people feel deeply relaxed which can continue after they are removed.
Are there any side effects?
Occasionally a small bruise can appear at a needle site. Sometimes people can feel dizzy or tired after a treatment but this passes quickly.
What is the history of acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a branch of traditional medicine that has been practised in China and the far east for thousands of years. It has been developed, tested, researched and refined to give a detailed understanding of the body’s energetic balance. Without the benefit of modern scientific equipment, the first acupuncturists discovered many now familiar aspects of biomedical science, such as the impact of emotional stress on the body. Traditional acupuncture has steadily grown in popularity in the UK since the 1970s.
What is moxa?
Moxa is often used in conjunction with acupuncture to enhance the effect of the treatment. The dried herb, Moxa, is used like incense to gently and safely warm the body, relax muscles and supplement qi.
What to expect from a treatment
Before having acupuncture treatment:
Before your first acupuncture session there are several things you should bear in mind:
- many commonly used acupuncture points are located on the lower arms and legs, so it is helpful to wear clothing that allows easy access to these areas
- try not to go for treatment on an empty stomach or straight after a heavy meal
- do let your practitioner know if you are completely new to acupuncture so they can take extra time to explain what happens and ensure you are comfortable with the process.
Your first consultation
During your first visit your BAcC acupuncturist needs to gain a thorough understanding of your main complaint and your general health and lifestyle. This involves asking questions about your current symptoms and your medical history, as well as such things as your sleeping pattern, your appetite and digestion, and your emotional wellbeing. Women are also asked about their menstrual cycle and any past pregnancies and childbirth.
You might feel that some questions appear unrelated to your condition but the information you give helps your practitioner to form a more complete picture of your health and lifestyle. Your acupuncturist will also take your pulse on both wrists and may examine your tongue and feel for areas of muscular tension or pain.
Your main health complaint
When talking about your main complaint, the practitioner might ask you to describe in your own words what the symptoms feel like and how severe they are. You may also be asked how long you have been having the symptoms, whether they are constant or intermittent and how frequent they are. You should mention any medication that you are taking and whether you have tried any other therapies.
In order to make a diagnosis according to traditional Chinese medicine theory and to find the right treatment approach, the practitioner will also want to know more specific details.
Treatment plan and treatment
Based on all the information you have given, the practitioner will make a diagnosis and put together your treatment plan, which may include lifestyle and dietary advice as well as acupuncture. Your practitioner will use very fine single-use pre-sterilised needles to stimulate specific acupuncture points on your body. Because energy meridians range across the whole body, the points used are not necessarily close to where you experience pain or discomfort. For example, if you suffer from headaches needles might be inserted in your foot or hand.
As well as needling acupuncture points, a traditional acupuncturist may use other Chinese medicine techniques such as:
- moxibustion: heat is applied to an acupuncture point or meridian using moxa (a therapeutic herb) and/or heat lamps to warm and relax muscles and qi
- tuina: Chinese therapeutic massage relieves muscle tension, stimulates acupressure points, opens energy meridians and stimulate the flow of qi
- cupping: glass cups with a vacuum seal are placed on the skin to stimulate blood flow and clear stagnant qi
- guasha: vigorous rubbing of the skin increases blood flow and clears stagnant qi
Your acupuncturist is likely to suggest ways in which you can enhance the long-term effects of your treatment. This may involve making changes to your diet and daily routine. If necessary you will be referred to other healthcare practitioners for specialist care.
Most people find acupuncture relaxing and often feel very calm after a treatment. You may feel a little tired or sleepy and should take this into account if you are planning to drive or use heavy machinery straight after your treatment.
You should refrain from vigorous exercise after treatment and, ideally, give yourself a little time to rest. It is also advisable not to drink alcohol for several hours after treatment.
Acupuncture has very few side effects and any that do occur are usually mild and self-correcting. Cupping and guasha can sometimes temporarily mark the skin. Such bruising is painless and generally clears within a day or two.
Is acupuncture safe?
Acupuncture is one of the safest medical treatments, both conventional and complementary, on offer in the UK.
Two surveys conducted independently of each other and published in the British Medical Journal in 2001 concluded that the risk of a serious adverse reaction to acupuncture is less than 1 in 10,000. This is far less than many orthodox medical treatments.
One survey was of traditional acupuncturists and the other of doctors who practise acupuncture. A total of 66,000 treatments were reviewed altogether, with only a handful of minor and transient side effects recorded.
A 2003 survey of 6,000 patients of acupuncture produced almost identical figures.
There are very few side effects from acupuncture when practised by a fully qualified practitioner of traditional acupuncture. Any minor side effects that do occur, such as dizziness or bruising around needle points, are mild and self-correcting.
When you receive treatment from a BAcC registered acupuncturist you can be confident that your wellbeing and safety is at the heart of everything your practitioner does. The following assurances are BAcC standard:
- BAcC members have completed a first-degree-level training or equivalent in traditional acupuncture including substantial elements of western anatomy, physiology and pathology
- your BAcC acupuncturist will record all relevant details of your health condition and your medical history before treatment commences. Occasionally, based on this information, he or she may refer you to your GP for further investigation or medical treatment
- your BAcC acupuncturist uses only pre-sterilised single-use needles which are safely disposed of after your treatment
- all treatments are carried out in accordance with exemplary professional standards developed by the British Acupuncture Council and detailed in the BAcC Codes of Safe Practice and of Professional Conduct
- the treatment room and all equipment must conform to standards laid out in the BAcC Code of Safe Practice and in nearly all cases have also been approved by local authority environmental health officers
- BAcC members have full medical malpractice and public/product liability insurance cover.
The BAcC is aware of the practice of self-needling, especially for patients who are undergoing chemotherapy and are taught limited but effective treatment to minimise the side-effects of the drug therapy. However, some places now appear to routinely hand out needles to patients for the purpose of self-treatment at home. The BAcC has considerable reservations about the widespread use of self-needling unless patients are properly taught how to avoid injury by using equipment which is appropriate for self-treatment and how to maintain rigorous health and safety standards for their own protection and for the protection of their families. Treatment from a properly trained and qualified practitioner is the best guarantee of safe and effective treatment.
Styles of acupuncture
Traditional acupuncture as practised by members of the BAcC is based on Chinese medicine principles that have been developed, researched and refined for over 2,500 years. Traditional acupuncture is holistic, not focused on isolated symptoms. It regards pain and illness, whether physical or mental, to be a sign the whole body is out of balance.
Different schools of traditional acupuncture vary slightly in needling style and diagnostic techniques but all concentrate on improving overall wellbeing by treating the root cause of an illness as well as relieving symptoms. All styles of acupuncture spring from the same Chinese medical roots.
Within traditional acupuncture there are several specific techniques which can be used as stand-alone treatments. All BAcC members are familiar with these techniques and use them when appropriate, usually as part of an overall individualised treatment plan. In addition to needling acupuncture points, a traditional acupuncture treatment may include other Chinese medicine techniques such as:
- moxibustion: application of indirect heat using moxa (therapeutic herbs) and/or heat lamps to warm and relax muscles and energy meridians
- tuina (Chinese therapeutic massage): to relieve muscle tension, stimulate acupressure points, open energy meridians and stimulate the flow of qi
- electro-acupuncture: a very low frequency electrical current (1Hz) is applied to the needle to increase blood flow, relax muscle tissue and clear stagnant qi
- cupping: glass cups with a vacuum seal are placed on the skin to stimulate blood flow and clear stagnant qi
- guasha: vigorous rubbing of the skin to increase blood flow and clear stagnant qi
Auricular acupuncture uses acupuncture points located on the ear. Often used with other styles of acupuncture or on its own.
Medical acupuncture is practised by osteopaths, doctors, and physiotherapists. Basic needling techniques are used within the framework of a western medical diagnosis to relieve symptoms such as pain and headache.
Trigger point acupuncture is practised by osteopaths and physiotherapists to treat musculo-skeletal pain.
Other healthcare professionals may learn these techniques as an adjunct to their main therapy.