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Acupuncture


Expert reviewer, Carrie Mattinson, Physiotherapist, Bupa UK
Next review due May 2020

Acupuncture is a type of therapy that involves inserting fine needles into your skin at specific points, to help treat health problems and conditions. Acupuncture is classed as a complementary therapy – it may be used alongside conventional medical treatment that you might be receiving.

A woman on a massage table

How does acupuncture work?

Practitioners of acupuncture are known as acupuncturists. They use acupuncture to help prevent or treat a wide range of conditions.

Acupuncture has existed as part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. But it's only become part of modern medicine in the West in the past 30 years or so. The traditional belief is that acupuncture helps to restore the flow of energy or ‘Qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’) through your body. Practitioners of TCM believe that Qi flows through your body in channels called meridians, and that disruption of this flow leads to ill health. Traditional acupuncture is believed to restore the proper flow of Qi.

Modern practice is based on the theory that acupuncture stimulates nerves under your skin, which can lead to the release of pain-relieving endorphins.

What is acupuncture used for?

The only circumstances for which there is enough good evidence to recommend acupuncture, are the prevention of tension-type headaches and migraines.

People often try acupuncture for a range of other problems though, particularly conditions that affect muscles, bones and joints. These include neck and back pain, knee pain associated with osteoarthritis, and overactive bladder. But there isn’t as much evidence of how effective acupuncture is for these conditions. For more information, see our section on Benefits.

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 practise of acupuncture.

To find an acupuncturist who practises traditional acupuncture, check the members list on the British Acupuncture Council website. To find a healthcare professional – such as a doctor, nurse or physiotherapist – who practises western medical acupuncture, check the British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS) website. All BMAS acupuncturists are qualified and registered health professionals who have also had additional training in acupuncture. You can also check the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP) to find a registered physiotherapist practising medical acupuncture.

If your acupuncturist isn’t medically trained, it’s important to see a doctor before you seek treatment. Your doctor can confirm a diagnosis and check that acupuncture is a safe option.

What happens during a acupuncture?

Initial consultation

At your first visit, your acupuncturist will want to get a detailed understanding of your health problem, as well as your lifestyle in general. They are likely to ask you lots of questions about your medical history, diet and lifestyle. It’s important to tell your acupuncturist the following information:

  • if you’re pregnant or could be pregnant
  • if you have a pacemaker
  • if you have epilepsy
  • if you have a condition that may affect your blood

Your acupuncturist will probably take your pulse, and may ask to examine your tongue. They may also feel for areas of muscular pain or tension in the tissues under your skin.

From this consultation, your acupuncturist will put together a treatment plan.

The treatment 

Your acupuncturist will insert a number of very fine, sterilised needles into your skin at specific points on your body. The number of needles your acupuncturist will use varies – but it may be only two or three. The places where the needles are inserted may not necessarily be close to where you’re experiencing symptoms. For instance, your acupuncturist may insert needles into your foot or hand to treat headaches. Many acupuncture points are on your lower arms and legs, so try to wear something where these areas can be easily accessed. Acupuncture is generally not painful, but many people describe feeling a mild tingling sensation.

Sometimes, other methods are used to stimulate acupuncture points, including pressure, lasers and very low voltage electrical current. Traditional acupuncturists may also use other techniques such as heat, massage and rubbing your skin, alongside inserting needles.

Your treatment plan will be tailored to you, but typically, a course of treatment lasts for between five and eight weekly sessions. You’ll normally know whether it’s working for you within three to four sessions.

Is acupuncture effective?

The scientific evidence for how well acupuncture works is often of quite poor quality, which makes it hard to be certain about how effective it really is.

The only two circumstances for which acupuncture is recommended, are the prevention of migraines and tension-type headaches. The available evidence suggests acupuncture can be effective for these conditions.

Clinical trials have also shown acupuncture to have some benefits in the treatment of osteoarthritis. However, these benefits were only small and not enough to be noticeable to patients with this condition.

There have been many studies looking at how effective acupuncture is for a range of other conditions, including ankle sprain, shoulder pain, irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. But the available evidence either hasn’t shown, or hasn’t been of good enough quality to show that acupuncture can help any of these things.

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

What are the risks of acupuncture?

All treatments carry some level of risk, and acupuncture is no different. If you have acupuncture, you may have some side-effects, which are usually only mild and temporary. Complications are unexpected problems that may happen during or after your treatment. These are described below.

Side-effects

Side-effects of acupuncture may include:

  • feeling dizzy
  • fainting
  • discomfort where the needle was inserted – including bruising or soreness
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • finding it hard to breathe
  • headache
  • a temporary worsening of your symptoms

You may feel tired and drowsy after your treatment, so it’s worth bearing this in mind if you plan to drive home.

Complications

Very rarely, there’s a risk of getting an infection in the area where a needle has been inserted. Your acupuncturist should always use sterile needles to reduce the risk of infections.

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes, but only if your treatment has been performed by a qualified health professional working in the NHS, or is registered with a statutory body. These include the General Medical Council (GMC) for doctors and the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) for physiotherapists. This is because there is a risk of infections if acupuncture hasn't been carried out under approved conditions.

    If your acupuncturist is registered with a non-statutory body, such as the British Acupuncture Council, 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


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  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Bupa Health Content Team, May 2017
    Expert reviewer, Carrie Mattinson, Physiotherapist, Bupa UK
    Next review due May 2020



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