Acupuncture: An Ancient Healing Practice


 Acupuncture: An Ancient Healing Practice

Acupuncture is an ancient healing practice that originated from Chinese medicine. It involves the insertion of fine needles at specific points on the body to promote therapeutic and preventative effects. This treatment has gained popularity and is now utilized in various medical settings, including NHS GP practices, pain clinics, and hospices across the UK. While acupuncture is often considered a form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM), its efficacy and benefits have been recognized by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for specific conditions. In this article, we will explore how acupuncture works, its uses, safety, and its availability on the NHS.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Acupuncture can be understood from both a Western medical perspective and the traditional Chinese medicine viewpoint. In Western medical acupuncture, also known as dry needling, the stimulation of sensory nerves under the skin and in the muscles triggers the production of natural substances, such as pain-relieving endorphins. These substances are believed to contribute to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.

On the other hand, traditional acupuncture is rooted in the belief that the body has a life force called Qi, which flows through channels known as meridians. According to this belief, when the flow of Qi is obstructed, it can result in illness. Acupuncture aims to restore the flow of Qi, thus promoting overall health.

Uses of Acupuncture

Acupuncture is used by practitioners, also known as acupuncturists, to treat a wide range of health conditions. However, it is important to note that the use of acupuncture is not always supported by rigorous scientific evidence. NICE currently recommends considering acupuncture as a treatment option for chronic pain, chronic tension-type headaches, migraines, prostatitis symptoms, and hiccups.

In addition to these conditions, acupuncture is often used to alleviate joint and muscle pain, jaw pain, cancer symptoms, and side effects of cancer treatment such as nausea and vomiting. However, the evidence regarding the effectiveness of acupuncture compared to other treatments remains unclear.

Accessing Acupuncture on the NHS

While acupuncture is available on the NHS, its accessibility is limited. It is primarily offered by GP surgeries or physiotherapists. However, many acupuncture patients opt for private treatment due to the wide variation in costs among practitioners. If you are considering acupuncture or are currently undergoing treatment, it is advisable to consult with your GP to discuss the best course of action.

The Process of Acupuncture

An acupuncture session typically begins with an assessment of your general health, medical history, and a physical examination. This initial session usually lasts between 20 minutes to an hour. The acupuncture needles are then carefully inserted into specific points on the body known as acupuncture points.

The needles used are very fine and range from a few centimeters to deeper insertions that reach the muscles. These needles are single-use and pre-sterilized to ensure safety. Depending on your condition, several points may be targeted during a session. Once the needles are in place, they may be left for a duration of a few minutes to around 30 minutes.

During the session, you may be asked to sit or lie down, and in some cases, you may need to remove certain clothing to allow access to specific areas of your body. It is common to experience a tingling sensation or a dull ache when the needles are inserted, but significant pain should not be felt. If you experience any discomfort, it is important to inform your practitioner immediately.

Safety and Regulation of Acupuncture

In England, there is currently no statutory regulation of acupuncture. To ensure safety, it is recommended to seek acupuncture treatment from a regulated healthcare professional, such as a doctor, nurse, physiotherapist, or a member of a national acupuncture organization. The Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care website can help you find accredited acupuncturists.

When performed by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is generally considered safe. However, mild and short-term side effects may occur, including pain or bruising at the insertion sites, drowsiness, feeling sick, or experiencing dizziness or faintness. Serious side effects such as a punctured lung or infection are rare. If you have a bleeding disorder or are taking certain medications, it is essential to consult with your GP or acupuncture practitioner before receiving treatment. Acupuncture is not advised if you have a metal allergy or an infection in the area where the needles may be inserted.

Acupuncture is generally safe during pregnancy, but it is important to inform your practitioner if you are pregnant, as certain acupuncture points should be avoided during pregnancy. For more information on the safety of complementary therapies during pregnancy, consult your healthcare provider.

The Benefits and Controversy of Acupuncture

While acupuncture has been praised for its potential benefits, there is ongoing controversy surrounding its effectiveness. Proponents of acupuncture believe that it can provide pain relief, alleviate symptoms, and promote overall well-being. Some studies have shown positive results, particularly for chronic pain conditions. However, the scientific evidence for acupuncture remains inconclusive, and more research is needed to fully understand its mechanisms and effectiveness.

Despite the controversy, many individuals continue to seek acupuncture for various reasons, including its potential to complement conventional treatments and provide a holistic approach to healthcare. The individual experiences and outcomes may vary, and it is important to consider acupuncture as part of a comprehensive treatment plan in consultation with healthcare professionals.


Acupuncture is an ancient healing practice that has found its place in modern healthcare. Whether viewed from a Western medical perspective or rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture aims to promote healing and restore balance in the body. While its efficacy is not universally supported by scientific evidence, acupuncture is recognized as a potential treatment option for specific conditions by NICE. If you are considering acupuncture, it is important to consult with your healthcare provider to determine the best approach for your individual needs.

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