Research fact sheets on specific conditions can be found on the British Acupuncture council website.

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What is Acupuncture?

Introduction

Acupuncture involves the use of very fine sterile single use needles at certain points on the body for pain control and to support general health.

The history of acupuncture can be dated back in China to around two thousand years ago but may have existed as long as four thousand years ago. An important, early classical text called the Huang Di Neijing (The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine), for example, is estimated to have been written during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).

The ancient Chinese viewed the body as a microcosm of the world around them and saw an interplay between the seasons and the body. We can see today, for example, that certain diseases are prevalent at different times of the year, with cold and flu prevalent during autumn/winter, hay fever during spring/summer and in hot climates the possibility of heat stroke during the summer.

One of the main underlying concepts in Chinese Medicine is the idea of balance, similar to the western medical view of homoeostasis. If the body is in good health, the body is more able to adapt; but with long term stress, poor diet/eating habits, lack of sleep and exercise, for example, this balance is not always maintained.


Biomedical understanding

Much research has been conducted over the past couple of decades to understand the effects and mechanics of how acupuncture works. While more research is still required, there are some key findings.

Acupuncture meridian pathways seem to closely match the pathways that a form of connective tissue called the myofascia takes. This myofascia, also known as "Anatomy Trains" (coined by Thomas W. Myers), connects with and links different parts of the anatomy, travelling across different muscles, joints and also connecting with different organs, helping to support and maintain the physical structure and allow unhindered movement. This may in part explain how the use of distal acupuncture points (e.g. in pain relief) can have a positive effect.

Also, functional Magnetic Imaging (fMRI) scans during acupuncture have shown areas of the brain becoming active, such as the hypothalamus, amygdala and parts of the limbic system. These areas of the brain are associated with our emotions and memory and also interpret the sensations of pain.

Acupuncture's benefit of painful conditions is also accomplished, through its effect on the nervous system. Nerves take certain pathways as they leave the spinal cord, and by stimulating point(s) on a given pathway it has been shown to cause analgesia on that segment of nerve (also known as segmental analgesia). As the signal travels up the spinal cord the stimulation has also been shown to affect other nerve pathways (otherwise known as extra-segmental analgesia).

Other changes include, a release of natural opiates (enkephalins and beta endorphins) and an increase in the binding potential* of the μ-opioid receptors (MORs), leading to further decreased pain perception.

*Binding potential: a measure of the density of neuroreceptors present and the affinity of the opiate to that neuroreceptor.


What happens during a treatment?

The practitioner goes through a thorough consultation and takes the tongue and pulse, to ascertain the Traditional Chinese Medical diagnosis and so recommend the best treatment plan.

Where appropriate, a session can include several different modalities, including acupuncture, massage, cupping therapy, heat lamp, therapeutic massage oils and moxibustion.

The initial session is 75-90 minutes, including a 20-minute consultation.

Follow-sessions last 60 minutes including a 10 to 15-minute consultation.

Lifestyle and dietary advice may also be given.


References

White A., Cummings M. and Filshie J. (2008) An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture. Oxford: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.

Myers T. W. (2009) Anatomy Trains. 2Nd Ed. Oxford: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.

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