Complementary Medicine: Treatment & Therapies
by Stephen Macallan, MBAcC, MAMH
|How does acupuncture Work?
For a more in depth explanation, please see elsewhere on this website. A brief explanation is that bodies are filled with an energy, sometimes called a Vital Force or an electro-magnetic field, which the Chinese named Ch'i (pronounced chee), and the Japanese named Ki (pronounced like key). This energy or Ch'i resides within our organs and travels round our bodies through channels which are
called meridians, and the Ch'i which travels through the meridians can be influenced from outside the body by, for example, the weather, laying-on of hands or healing, massage etc. A powerful way to influence the Ch'i is by using needles - a needle can be inserted into the body to contact the Ch'i moving through the meridian and when the needle contacts the Ch'i a needle technique can be applied to alter the flowing Ch'i, this, in turn, will alter the Ch'i residing within the organ attached to that
meridian, which will, in turn alter the ch'i in all the other organs. An example, albeit simplified may clarify this. An imaginary patient suffers with angina, at the first diagnostic session the acupuncturist determines that the Ch'i within the heart is low or deficient. The acupuncturist then selects an acupuncture point on the heart meridian to needle. He selects a point which can increase or tonify heart Ch'i and uses a needle technique which increases/tonifies heart Ch'i. Bingo! Heart Ch'i' has
been increased, healing occurs and the angina goes away. Aah, if it were only that simple - needless to add, in practise, it is more complicated than this, but hopefully my little story illustrates the principle. In essence then, acupuncture works by altering the nature and quality, both of the Ch'i, and of the flow of the Ch'i and by balancing and regulating this vital energy we can increase a body's vitality and ability to heal itself.
If I decide to consult an acupuncturist, how do I find one?
The best way to find an acupuncturist is to ask your friends and acquaintances if they have had acupuncture treatment that was helpful. If no-one in your social world has had treatment then Yellow Pages/Thompsons/local directories should contain listings of practitioners in your area. There are now so many acupuncturists in this country that it would be unusual not to find one in practise in your area. If you are trawling directories then look for practitioners listed in a box entitled 'British Acupuncture Council' and ensure that your chosen practitioner has the letters M.B.Ac.C. after his name. The internet represents a good resource and click on the B.Ac.C.'s website at www.acupuncture.org.uk for more information including a list of practitioners in your area.
What types of health complaint can be helped by acupuncture?
Acupuncture practice in this country can be loosely subdivided into two categories - Traditional Acupuncture and Medical Acupuncture. In Traditional Acupuncture, disease in whatever form is seen as a disturbance of the proper functioning of the ind/body/spirit and the treatment principle is to improve the functioning of the entire mind/body/spirit and thus enable a person's own healing powers to perform properly and in this way resolve the health complaint. Medical or western Acupuncture is more concerned with relieving pain ~ this is in accord with medical research to date which has clearly demonstrated that acupuncture is able to bring pain relief even where orthodox procedures have failed. In theory the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but in practise they often are.
Traditional Acupuncturists often disdain Medical Acupuncture for only relieving pain and not addressing the cause of the pain whereas Medical Acupuncturists disdain Traditional practise as unscientific and untested. Writing as a Traditional practitioner, I illustrate my viewpoint in this way : Imagine 10 people suffering headaches and all 10 consult with an acupuncturist. Nine of these have disturbed (say) liver Ch'i causing the headaches and one has a tumour on the brain causing the headaches. The chances are that all 9 will benefit in terms of reduction of frequency/severity and perhaps complete elimination of the headaches from either type of practise. But the 10th. (tumour on the brain) patient will only experience significant reduction in headaches when/if the tumour is resolved by Traditionalist whereas Western treatment may improve the headaches regardless of the tumour. There is a risk in symptom suppression/pain killing, but if the cause of the pain/symptom is tackled then there is no risk.
To return to the original question then, the answer is this : Traditional Acupuncture can benefit any and all health complaints - benefit being defined as on a spectrum ranging from complete cure to improved well-being'. Medical or Western Acupuncture can reduce pain in most situations.
What happens during an acupuncture session?
At the first session the practitioner will take a case history, enquiring about the main symptom, any other symptoms, illnesses through your life as well as an enquiry into your daily life - appetite, sleep pattern, lifestyle, bowel habits, energy level, occupation, etc. This may be brief and broad details only, or it may be detailed and extensive, depending on practitioner style and patient circumstances. A physical examination will follow - examination of eyes, tongue, abdominal palpation, wrist-pulse palpation, blood pressure may be checked, the area on the body of the
complaint may be examined. The practitioner seeks to ascertain the overall shape of
the person's Ch'i and related health picture, in order to best understand how to
proceed with treatment. In most cases a treatment will then occur, occasionally the
first treatment will be at the second appointment ~ again this depends on practitioner
style and patient circumstances. A treatment consists in the insertion of one or more
acupuncture needles into carefully chosen acupuncture points - the needles may go
in and immediately out again or they may be left in for a while, and they may be
agitated in some way, depending on practitioner style and the Ch'i imbalance in the
At subsequent sessions, treatment response to date will be determined together with any new developments and a usually briefer physical examination followed by a further treatment. This will continue until all possible benefits from treatment have been obtained.
Does it hurt?
Needling causes two sensations. The first is the sensation of the needle
slipping through the skin, this can be without any sensation whatsoever or there can
be a very brief, very mild, discomfort. There are a very few points where the discomfort is greater but still very short-lived. This sensation overall poses no barrier to treatment, even when treating children.
There then follows a second sensation, this occurs when the needle connects with the Ch'i or vital energy of the patient. This sensation is unique to acupuncture but is best described as a tingling, numbing feeling, neither nasty nor nice, a "hurt good" feeling. The sensation fades leaving a slight ache which may last a few moments. This sensation, also poses no barrier to treating children. There may also be a slight giddy or light-headed moment which quickly passes, often leaving a relaxed almost euphoric state of mind, body and spirit.
How often will I need to have a treatment?
This, of course, depends upon the nature of the health problem and the constitution of the individual patient. Generally a person should expect to need weekly treatments initially, gradually moving to a two-weekly, three-weekly, etc., cycle as the total health picture improves. In severe or acute situations treatment may be twice or even three times a week in the very beginning until the severe/acute stage passes. The actual guideline is that the next treatment should take place just as the last treatment is winding down and the more treatment one has had the longer this should take.
For how long will I need to be treated?
The very broad rule of thumb is that a patient will need 1 year of regular treatment for every 10 years of disease. This guideline is complicated by the stressful nature of our lifestyle, the pressures of the modern world in which we live and our toxic environment. These factors mitigate against good health and mean that some people will need 'top-up' treatments every one or two months ad infinitum.
How much does acupuncture cost?
Initial consultation fees vary from £30.00 to £80.00 and usually lasts from 1 to 2 hours. Subsequent treatment fees vary from £20.00 to £50.00. These variations arise out of duration, location - a treatment in Harley Street, London will cost more than a treatment in downtown, Cheaptown, and practitioner expertise, particularly where a practitioner is multi-skilled and brings more than one therapy to bear on any given problem. The final variable is market forces. The profession seems to attract individuals who set their own standards for their fees, such as a colleague who charges X% per cent of your annual income - bring proof to your first appointment. The answer here is to ring round and get prices, but remember that you generally get what you pay for.
What about safety? Are the needles sterilised? Etc.
Members of the British Acupuncture Council are bound by the Code of Ethics which lays down strict guidelines regarding proper sterile procedures. Most acupuncturists use disposable pre-sterilised needles and those that don't are required to use autoclaving as the sterilisation procedure. But I suggest that you, once again, confirm that your chosen practitioner is a member of the B.Ac.C. and further you should ask her about this matter and if you are not satisfied with the answer, go elsewhere.
Who is qualified and who isn't?
There are people and I've known one, without a proper qualification, who nonetheless are effective acupuncturists. There are quite a number of people and I
know of many, without proper qualification or proper training who are promoting
themselves as acupuncturists; some of these may be effective acupuncturists and some may not. The medical profession contains many people like this - until recently the B.M.A. ran single weekend courses on acupuncture, closing these training sessions with the words '..go and experiment on your patients..'. B.M.A. policy has now changed in this regard and the B.M.A. now recommends that the medical and allied profession members wishing to study acupuncture should attend a college of acupuncture and receive a full training. There are some excellent acupuncturists who are medics, but there are many medics who are as good at acupuncture as I would be good at surgery after a weekend's instruction. The same applies to physiotherapists, osteopaths and nurses and others.
Any person who is a member of the B.Ac.C. is properly qualified and has
been properly trained. As the law stands at the moment anybody can buy some needles and set up in practise as an acupuncturist. Fortunately people who do this are few and far between. However, the profession is lurching towards statutory state regulation and when/if this occurs only members of the B.Ac.C will be able to call themselves acupuncturists. In the meantime let caution prevail - 90% of the acupuncture-related disasters in this country have been caused by non-qualified acupuncturists - check your chosen practitioner's qualifications, training and confirm membership of the B.Ac.C.
Relevant qualifications are: Lic.Ac.
Is acupuncture effective medicine for everybody?
I know of no contra-indications. Certain medical conditions require specialised knowledge/experience e.g. epilepsy, pregnancy, children and infants but in principle if you are living and breathing you should be able to benefit from good acupuncture treatment. I have heard people say things such as "Oh I had acupuncture, but it doesn't work for me". I have had patients who I have been unable to help. But it is not the case that acupuncture doesn't work for them - it is that the practitioner did not apply the right treatment strategies for that particular person. To be fair I think that some people might obtain greater benefit from, say, herbal medicine or perhaps osteopathy/reflexology etc. But, yes, acupuncture is effective medicine for everybody, but acupuncturists are human and thus may sometimes pursue an inappropriate treatment strategy, so if your first acupuncturist does not help you, you should perhaps consider a different practitioner before giving up.
Are there any side-effects?
Most patients experience a calm, relaxed or euphoric state of being after a treatment. A few are enlivened by treatment. A few are sleepy after treatment and will need an early bedtime. There are no unpleasant side-effects, there are often pleasant side benefits - the treatment strategy is to improve the whole mind/body/spirit of a erson so if a patient has treatment for migraines, sleep pattern may improve or energy level may improve. Very rarely during a course of treatment an aggravation may occur. This is when a symptom briefly worsens and this usually occurs after treatment has been improving things, then as part of the healing process there can be a short period during which the symptom is worse, before the improvement continues.
How will I respond to treatment? How do I know treatment is working?
The initial response to treatment is usually a sense of increased well-being
and this may occur before there is any relief from the main complaint, even though
increased well-being can result in increased tolerance of the main complaint. In the early stages of treatment, I have often heard such things as ".. I have had just as many headaches but I can put up with more, they are not debilitating me as much..". This increase in well-being occurs as the mind/body/spirit system is encouraged to work better and the more this continues the more healing can occur and the more the symptoms abate. A patient should expect to feel benefit from the treatment program by the fourth treatment at the latest and benefit usually begins, albeit a bit short-lived, after the first treatment.
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