Acupuncture is a treatment that consists in pricking the patient with a
special needle. It developed in China about 2,000 years ago. Today
there is also a version of acupuncture which explains the
treatment in modern scientific terms. This is often called Western
What are the differences between traditional and modern
Traditional Chinese acupuncture used a complicated system of ancient
ideas that are not easy for most of us to understand or accept today.
The modern version doesn't use these ancient ideas and this makes it
easier for health professionals such as doctors, physiotherapists,
osteopaths, chiropractors and podiatrists to learn and use. The British Medical
Acupuncture Society, which takes the modern approach, has over 2000 members.
There are also practical differences.
Modern acupuncturists do not use traditional diagnostic methods such
as the pulse or the appearance of the tongue.
Many, though not all, modern acupuncturists leave the needles in
place for quite a short time: often about two minutes or even less.
Many, though not all, modern acupuncturists use only a few needles,
perhaps four and sometimes only one! Surprising though it may seem,
experience shows that doing acupuncture this way is quite as effective
as using a lot of needles and leaving them in for longer. It is also less
likely to have unwanted effects.
Which is better, modern or traditional?
The ancient traditional type of acupuncture is difficult and
time-consuming to perform but there is little if any scientific evidence
to show that it gives better results or can treat more conditions than
does the modern version.
Enthusiasm for the traditional ideas is more widespread today in the
West than in China itself! Since the 1930s Chinese acupuncture has been
largely based on modern ideas of how the body works. Much of the
acupuncture research coming from China today uses modern scientific
How does it work?
A lot of research on this question has been done in recent years. Much
still remains to be discovered, but today we can say that there is a
plausible scientific basis for the treatment, at least in its modern
form. Here is a summary of the main topics that have been studied.
There are changes in the tissues at the site of needle insertion
which probably speed up healing of injuries and recovery from
The modern understanding of pain is that it depends on complex
patterns of activity in the spinal cord and brain. There is good
evidence that acupuncture can alter these patterns and so reduce the
intensity of pain or its unpleasantness.
A lot of pain in muscles and joints is thought to be due to what
are called trigger points in the muscles. These are like knots, which
hurt when pressed and cause pain to radiate to other places. Needling
these can relieve pain and increase the range of movement.
What diseases can be helped by acupuncture?
It isn't possible to give a complete list, partly because a lot depends
on the reaction of the individual patient. Some people are better
subjects than others, and some don't respond at all.
In general, acupuncture is good for pain, especially pain in the muscles
and joints (including some kinds of arthritis). It can also help in a
range of other disorders, including tension headaches and migraine, some
allergies, and painful periods.
Does it hurt?
Acupuncture usually hurts a little. However, it is no more painful
than an ordinary injection or blood test and often it is less
painful than these. Some people feel nothing at all. Oddly
enough, you may even find that acupuncture makes you feel relaxed and
happy. If this happens it probably means that you are a good
acupuncture subject and are likely to benefit from this form of
treatment. (If it doesn't happen to you, don't worry; the acupuncture
may work well anyway.)
Can it cause any harm?
Acupuncture carries the same risks as
any other medical use of needles, such as damage to internal organs,
though this is rare. To put it in perspective, acupuncture is probably
safer than taking most over-the-counter medicines for pain. This
assumes, of course, that the acupuncture is performed by someone with an
adequate knowledge of anatomy and medicine.
Sometimes a small bruise appears where the needle was inserted. This
isn't serious; it just means that a little vein was broken by the
needle. There is no need to do anything about it; it will go away by
This list does not exhaust all the effects that have been
reported but it does summarise the commonest ones. If you have any
particular anxieties about the treatment you should discuss them with
May I be worse after acupuncture?
You may find that your
symptoms become worse for a short time after acupuncture.
This is called an aggravation. Tell the person who is treating you
about this next time you come. It may be possible to avoid the
aggravation in future by treating you more lightly, with fewer needles
or for a shorter time. But some people will get a mild aggravation every
time they have acupuncture. They generally feel it is worth accepting this
for the sake of the pain relief that follows.
You might also have pain after acupuncture that isn't connected with your
original complaint, although this is rare. It may be due to damage to a
small nerve and is not totally preventable; it doesn't necessarily
mean that the acupuncture has been done incorrectly. Pain of this kind
will usually pass off within a day or two.
Can acupuncture transmit AIDS or hepatitis?
No, because all the needles are disposed of after use. There is
therefore no possibility that infection could be transmitted. (Never
have acupuncture from anyone who doesn't use disposable
Is it safe to drive after acupuncture?
Drowsiness after acupuncture is fairly common. This may
make driving or operating machinery unwise, so you should
generally not drive yourself home after treatment, particularly on the
first occasion. Sometimes drowsiness does not occur after the first
treatment but does occur on a subsequent occasion. It is also
possible for drowsiness to occur later in the day, some
hours after treatment. You should
therefore be cautious about driving for the rest of the day and
be prepared for your reflexes to be slower than normal.
How soon will I notice an improvement?
You may have some
improvement as soon as the needle is put in but most people find that
improvement takes longer to appear - sometimes later the same day, or
perhaps up to two or three days later.
How many treatments will I require?
Sometimes one treatment is
enough but this is unusual. Most people require a course of roughly 3
to 6 treatments.
How soon will I know if it is working?
Generally speaking, there should be at least some effect after two or
three treatments. If nothing at all happens you are probably not going
to respond to this form of treatment. You should never be asked to book
in for a fixed number of treatments in advance, since the course of
treatment is always unpredictable.
Will the effect be the same each time I am treated?
You may find that the effects of treatment vary from time to time. One
treatment may help a lot, the next less or even not at all. Don't worry
too much about this; provided there is a long-term trend towards
improvement all is in order.
How frequent are the treatments?
For chronic (long-term) problems like arthritis you may
be asked to come back after a week or so. Acute problems (those that have
started recently, such as a sprain) may be treated more frequently at
first, although probably not more often than twice a week.
Will acupuncture cure me completely?
acupuncture doesn't 'cure' diseases although it can give good relief,
especially for pain. It is best thought of as a form of symptom relief.
But if a disease is capable of recovering by itself it is
possible that acupuncture can tip the balance towards recovery.
Will I need further treatment after the first course?
Sometimes an occasional 'top-up' treatment is needed to maintain
improvement. As a rule only one treatment is required for this, even if
the initial course was longer. Patients have individual
patterns of response which remain pretty constant. For example, you may
find that it always takes 24 hours before you notice an improvement. And
the duration of improvement - 8 weeks, 12 weeks, or whatever - is also
fairly constant for a given patient.
Should I stop my conventional treatment?
You shouldn't stop
any prescribed medicine before discussing it with your doctor; doing
so could be dangerous. Over-the-counter treatments can often be reduced
or even stopped (discuss this with your acupuncturist). If you are
taking medicine to relieve pain and stop abruptly you may get worse. You
may think this is caused by the acupuncture although it isn't.
But I don't actually believe in it!
Belief doesn't matter. In fact, the best results are often seen in
people who didn't expect it to work! Provided you are willing to have
the treatment it may work.
I'm pregnant. Is it safe to have acupuncture?
Ideally, all kinds of treatment are best avoided in pregnancy, but
acupuncture is probably safer than most drugs and a recent review of
acupuncture in pregnancy has been reassuring. If you are pregnant you
should tell your acupuncturist in case any modification of treatment is
required. Acupuncture appears to work quite well for nausea and vomiting in the
early months of pregnancy and for back pain in later pregnancy.
What if I'm a blood donor?
Discuss this with your acupuncturist. You can be given a letter to show
to the blood donor authorities, explaining that you have had acupuncture
from a regulated health professional who uses single-use disposable
needles. This will usually allow you to give blood.
I still have questions. Where can I find more information?