Acupuncture is a treatment derived from ancient Chinese medicine. Fine needles are inserted at certain sites in the body for therapeutic or preventative purposes.
Western medical acupuncture is the use of acupuncture following a medical diagnosis. It involves stimulating sensory nerves under the skin and in the muscles of the body. This results in the body producing natural substances, such as pain-relieving endorphins. It's likely that these naturally released substances are responsible for the beneficial effects experienced with acupuncture.
A course of acupuncture usually creates longer lasting pain relief than when a single treatment is used.
Traditional acupuncture is based on the belief that an energy, or "life force", flows through the body in channels called meridians. This life force is known as Qi (pronounced "chee"). Practitioners who adhere to traditional beliefs about acupuncture believe that when Qi doesn't flow freely through the body, this can cause illness. They also believe acupuncture can restore the flow of Qi, and so restore health.
According to the British Acupuncture Council, conditions treated include headaches, lower back pain, infertility, depression, osteoarthritis, insomnia, digestive disorders (including IBS) and allergies (including eczema and hay fever). It is used in many NHS general practices, as well as the majority of pain clinics and hospices in the UK.
An initial acupuncture session usually lasts 60 minutes and involves an assessment of your general health, medical history and a physical examination, followed by insertion of the acupuncture needles. Courses of treatment often involve up to 10 separate sessions, but this can vary. The needles are inserted into specific places on the body, which practitioners call acupuncture points.
During the session, you'll usually be asked to sit or lie down. You may also be asked to remove some clothes so the practitioner can access certain parts of your body. The needles used are fine and are usually a few centimetres long. They should be single-use, pre-sterilised needles that are disposed of immediately after use.
Acupuncture practitioners choose specific points to place the needles based on your condition. Up to 12 points may be used during a typical session, sometimes more depending on the number of symptoms you have. The needles may be inserted just under the skin, or deeper so they reach muscle tissue. Once the needles are in place, they may be left in position for a length of time lasting from a few minutes up to around 30 minutes. You may feel a tingling or a dull ache when the needles are inserted but shouldn't experience any significant pain. If you do, let your practitioner know straight away. In some cases, your practitioner may rotate the needles or stimulate them with a mild electric current (known as electroacupuncture).
When it's carried out by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is generally very safe. There is a very small risk of mild, short-lived side effects such as pain, bruising/bleeding, nausea and drowsiness.
If you have a bleeding disorder, such as haemophilia, or are taking anticoagulants talk to your GP before you have acupuncture. Acupuncture is also not usually advised if you have a metal allergy or an infection in the area where needles may be inserted. It's generally safe to have acupuncture when you're pregnant. However, let your acupuncture practitioner know if you're pregnant because certain acupuncture points can't be used safely during pregnancy.
Sourced from NHS Choices & British Acupuncture Council