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Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a complementary therapy that involves inserting needles into your skin at defined points to try to help treat health problems and conditions. A complementary therapy may be used together with medical treatment that you might be receiving.

Your acupuncturist will discuss your care before carrying out the treatment. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.

Acupuncture has existed as part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. However, it's only in the past 30 years or so that it’s attracted interest in the West.

Practitioners of TCM believe that your energy or ‘Qi’ may influence your health. This energy flows around your body in channels (meridians) and when it becomes unbalanced it’s thought to cause illness. Practitioners of TCM believe that the needles used in acupuncture may help to restore your balance of energy.

Western medical acupuncture sometimes involves stimulating certain acupuncture points on your body with an electric current.

Acupuncture doesn’t just treat one condition, but is practiced to help prevent or treat many things. It’s often used for conditions that affect your muscles, bones and joints, such as lower back pain, osteoarthritis and neck pain. Acupuncture is also commonly used to treat headaches and migraines. It might also be tried for other reasons too, as a way to stop smoking or improve outcomes in couples having fertility treatments.

How well acupuncture works varies. There’s some evidence that it may work for certain things but not others. See ‘is acupuncture effective?’ for more information.

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Details

  • Finding a practitioner Where can I find an acupuncturist?

    Currently, acupuncturists in the UK are not regulated by the government. This means that anyone can call him or herself an acupuncturist regardless of what training they have done. However, there are regulatory bodies that acupuncturists can join, which set standards for the practice of acupuncture.

    To find an acupuncturist who practises traditional acupuncture, check the members list on the British Acupuncture Council website. If you’d like to contact a healthcare professional who practises western medical acupuncture, check with the British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS) website. All BMAS acupuncturists are qualified and registered health professionals who have also had additional training in acupuncture.

    See our further information for more details.

    If you’re having acupuncture by an acupuncturist who isn’t medically trained, it’s important to get advice from your doctor about your diagnosis. You should also do this to ensure that acupuncture is an appropriate treatment.

    Bupa Clinics: Acupuncture (MSK treatment)

    If you are concerned about your health and wellbeing, Bupa can help you get a diagnosis.

  • The procedure What happens during acupuncture?

    If you decide to have acupuncture, you will first have a detailed consultation. Your acupuncturist will ask you questions about your medical history, diet and lifestyle. It’s important to tell your acupuncturist if you are or could be pregnant, have a pacemaker, epilepsy or a condition that may affect your blood.

    He or she may pay particular attention to your tongue and pulse. Your acupuncturist may also feel for areas of muscular pain or tension in the tissues under your skin. From this consultation your acupuncturist may be able to advise you on a course of acupuncture treatment. You might receive treatment once a week over five to eight weeks. Ask your acupuncturist for more information about how long your treatment may last.

    Your acupuncturist might select different acupuncture points during your course of treatment. He or she will usually insert up to 12 needles into your skin. Your acupuncturist may insert each needle and immediately remove it, or leave the needles in place for up to 20 minutes. The sensation when the needle goes into your skin is often described as a tingling or dull ache.

    Some traditional acupuncturists may use other techniques instead of or in addition to needles to stimulate the various acupuncture points on your body. The techniques are described below.

    • Moxibustion. This method involves applying heat to an acupuncture point using a herb, which is believed to warm and relax your muscles and qi.
    • Tuina. This is a type of Chinese massage which may help to relieve any muscle tension you have. It’s thought to help stimulate various acupuncture points and qi in your body.
    • Cupping. Heated cups are placed on your skin to create a vacuum. This is believed to stimulate your blood flow.
    • Guasha. This is a method in which your acupuncturist will vigorously rub your skin. This is thought to increase your blood flow and clear your qi.

    A medical acupuncturist will be able to discuss your medical conditions with you and whether acupuncture is suitable for you. Western medical acupuncture sometimes involves manual or low voltage electrical stimulation to the needles to assist the process.

  • Benefits Is acupuncture effective?

    The scientific evidence for how effective acupuncture is varies. In some instances it’s not clear how well it works and more research is needed.

    One of the difficulties with measuring effectiveness in research is knowing whether the benefit is purely from acupuncture or because of what’s called a placebo effect. Studies often compare acupuncture with a placebo (dummy treatment) called ‘sham’ acupuncture. It looks like acupuncture where the needles pierce your skin but they don’t target acupuncture points. Some research suggests that acupuncture works better than sham acupuncture for treating certain symptoms. But other research shows that there’s no difference between them and suggests that any benefit after acupuncture is down to a placebo effect.

    We do know that acupuncture may be beneficial if you have low back pain. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends it for lower back pain that lasts longer than six weeks but less than a year. You may have a maximum of ten sessions over a 12 week period.

    Research also suggests that acupuncture might also be a helpful treatment for osteoarthritis, neck pain, tension-type headaches and migraines.

    Research has also looked into if acupuncture can help with things like stopping smoking or help couples having fertility treatments. But whether it can help you stop smoking isn’t clear because the evidence isn’t very consistent. The research does indicate that trying something, whether it’s acupuncture or something else, may be better than doing nothing at all. There’s no evidence to suggest that acupuncture can help couples having fertility treatments.

    Research is being carried out all the time. For many of the ways acupuncture might be used, such as cancer-related pain, more research needs to be done to find out how effective it is.

  • Muscle, bone and joint treatment

    At our Bupa Health Centres, we offer self-pay health services for a wide range of conditions, including muscle, bone and joint treatment.

  • Risks What are the risks?

    As with every treatment, there are some risks associated with acupuncture. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your acupuncturist to explain how these risks apply to you.

    Side-effects

    Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having acupuncture.

    Side-effects of acupuncture may include:

    • discomfort when the needle is inserted
    • drowsiness, which can last for a few hours (so bear this in mind if you plan to drive home)
    • dizziness
    • fainting or feeling faint
    • bruising or bleeding at the site of the needle
    • a temporary worsening of your symptoms

    Complications

    Complications are when problems occur during or after your treatment. Very rarely, there’s a risk of getting an infection in the area where a needle has been placed in your skin. Sterile needles should always be used to reduce the risk of infections.

  • FAQs FAQs

    Can I donate blood after having acupuncture?

    Answer

    Yes, but only if your treatment has been performed by the NHS or by a qualified health professional who is registered with a statutory body. This is because there is a risk of infections if acupuncture hasn't been carried out under approved conditions.

    Explanation

    If you’ve had acupuncture and it’s been performed by the NHS, you may donate blood. You may also donate blood if your acupuncturist is a qualified health professional who is registered with a statutory body (such as the General Medical Council).

    If your acupuncturist is registered with a non-statutory body, such as the BAcC, you can’t donate blood for four months after your last acupuncture treatment. This is because these organisations aren’t supervised by the Council for Regulatory Excellence in Healthcare. If you had acupuncture between four and 12 months ago, you will need to have an additional blood test. This is done to check that you don't carry any risk of infection.

    How much does acupuncture cost?

    Answer

    There is no fixed price for acupuncture and the cost will vary depending on where you live.

    Explanation

    Your first consultation will usually cost between £50 and £70 and follow-up appointments will be about £40 to £50 per session.

    Some GP practices and hospitals offer integrated healthcare with complementary therapies including acupuncture. Ask your GP if it’s available in your local area.

    What qualifications does an acupuncture practitioner need?

    Answer

    It's important that you find a trained practitioner who is registered with a professional body. At the moment anyone in the UK can call themselves an acupuncturist, even if they don't have professional qualifications or experience.

    Explanation

    The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) is the main body for professional traditional acupuncturists in the UK. Members of the BAcC are required to complete BSc or BA degree level training in traditional acupuncture and Chinese medicine. A BAcC member will carry the letters MBAcC after his or her name. They should also have some training in anatomy, physiology and pathology.

    The British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS) is the professional body for health professionals, who use acupuncture. All members are UK registered health professionals who hold a Certificate of Accreditation. BMAS accredited acupuncturists will have a Certificate of Basic Competence and a Diploma of Medical Acupuncture. Medical acupuncturists must complete at least six hours of update training every year.

    Chartered physiotherapists may also train as practitioners and become members of the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP). A physiotherapist must have completed an 80-hour foundation course or a university degree in acupuncture before he or she can register with the AACP.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Brook P, Connell J, Pickering T. Oxford handbook of pain management. Oxford: Oxford University press; 2011:242–6
    • Ernst E, Pittler MH, Wider B, et al. Oxford handbook of complimentary medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008:42–5
    • Energy medicine. The Merck Manuals. www.merckmanuals.com, published February 2010
    • Acupuncture for pain. National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. www.nccam.nih.gov, published 24 February 2014
    • Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: what’s in a name? National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. www.nccam.nih.gov, published October 2008
    • Acupuncture: an introduction. National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. www.nccam.nih.gov, published December 2007
    • FAQs. Give blood – NHS Blood and Transplant. www.blood.co.uk, accessed 30 October 2013
    • Colquhoun D, Novella SP. Acupuncture is theatrical placebo. Anesthesia & Analgesia 2013; 116(6):1360–3. doi:10.1213/ANE.0b013e31828f2d5e
    • White A. Western medical acupuncture: a definition. Acupunct Med 2009; 27(1):33–5. doi:10.1136/aim.2008.000372
    • Zhang H BZ, Lin Z. Are acupoints specific for diseases? A systematic review of the randomized controlled trials with sham acupuncture controls. Chin Med 2010; 5(1). doi:10.1186/1749-8546-5-1
    • History of acupuncture, What to expect from a treatment, What is traditional acupuncture, Why use a BAcC member, What we do, Is acupuncture safe, How much does acupuncture cost and how many treatments. British Acupuncture Council. www.acupuncture.org.uk, accessed 28 October 2013
    • Frequently asked questions. British Acupuncture Council. www.acupuncture.org.uk, published 14 December 2011
    • About BMAS, Questions, General info about acupuncture, Certificate of basic competence, Diploma in medical acupuncture. The British Medical Acupunture Society. www.medical-acupuncture.co.uk, accessed 28 October 2013
    • Info about blood donation. The British Medical Acupunture Society. www.medical-acupuncture.co.uk, published 22 February 2010
    • Requirements. Physiotherapists AAoC. www.aacp.org.uk, accessed 30 October 2012
    • Low back pain: early management of persistent non-specific low back pain. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), May 2009. www.nice.org.uk
    • Manheimer E, Cheng K, Linde K, et al. Acupuncture for peripheral joint osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 1. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001977.pub2
    • Trinh K, Graham N, Gross A, et al. Acupuncture for neck disorders. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 3. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004870.pub3
    • Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for tension-type headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 1. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub2
    • Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 1. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub2
    • White A, Rampes H, Liu J, et al. Acupuncture and related interventions for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 1. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000009.pub4
    • Cheong Y, Dix S, Hung Yu Ng E, et al. Acupuncture and assisted reproductive technology. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 7. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006920.pub3
    • Paley C, Johnson M, Tashani O, et al. Acupuncture for cancer pain in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 1. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007753.pub2
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