When you hear the term “acupuncture”, what immediately comes to mind? For some it's a sense of relaxation and restoration; a mystical healing force flowing throughout their body while the sound of running water, wooden flutes and wind chimes fill the background. For others, a human pincushion comes to mind, or a procedure nothing short of torture! Some people believe acupuncture to be the answer to all human ills, while others feel it's nothing other than quackery. Either way, there is certainly much that is unknown about this ancient system of healing. Since its introduction to the West acupuncture has undergone much scrutiny and controversy still remains high between so-called experts. However, more recently, research has started to shed light on some of the mysteries surrounding acupuncture and has provided explanations as to how it actually works from a modern scientific perspective. Because of this, along with the ever-mounting body of evidence demonstrating its efficacy, acupuncture has gained huge popularity and has now become widely accepted within the medical field.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is defined as the procedure of inserting and manipulating needles into various points of the body to provide pain relief and a variety of therapeutic effects. Acupuncture and acupuncture-like techniques are believed to have been used throughout the world for over 5000 years, but are more commonly recognised today as an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Practitioners of TCM believe that a life energy or vital force, called Qi (pronounced chi), runs throughout our bodies along channels called meridians, regulating bodily functions and nourishing organs. Piercing the skin at certain points along these meridians is believed to influence the flow of Qi and exert a therapeutic effect on the associated body part.

Traditional Acupuncture in Europe

Traditional acupuncture was first introduced to Europe in the 17th century, but widespread interest in the technique didn't develop until the early 1970's as travel restrictions between the East and West were eased. Since then, traditional acupuncture has gradually increased in popularity and has become a common treatment modality within the complementary and alternative medicine field. Yet, despite its apparent effectiveness and reported success in treating a wide variety of conditions, traditional acupuncture has received much criticism from Western scientists, who describe it as pseudoscientific and pass off any anecdotal evidence of its efficacy to the placebo effect. This is because the concept of Qi, on which traditional acupuncture is based, is considered “metaphysical” from a Western standpoint as there is no scientific evidence to show that it even exists.

Western Medical Acupuncture

In reality, inserting needles into body parts does often provide remarkable effects and has been demonstrated clinically to provide relief from a variety of symptoms, especially painful conditions. For this reason, acupuncture has been taken up by a number of health professionals, including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and osteopaths, who have reinterpreted it with a modern-day understanding of anatomy, physiology, pathology. This form of acupuncture is founded on mainstream science and follows an orthodox clinical diagnosis. This approach is referred to as Western medical acupuncture or dry needling.

So What’s The Research Behind Acupuncture?

Because of the growing public interest and concerns for evidence-based medical treatment, acupuncture has become the subject of over 1,000 published clinical trials which are accessible in databases such as PubMed and the National Library of Medicine. Over 100 literature reviews and meta-analyses are also available at the same sources.

By stimulating the nerves in the skin and muscles, acupuncture can produce a number of measurable effects, such as reducing muscle tone, increasing blood flow through the vasodilation of vessels and triggering capillary and nerve growth. It has also been shown to increase the release of the body's natural painkilling substances, endorphin and serotonin, which act in the pain pathways of the spinal cord and the brain to modify the way pain signals are received.

Research shows that acupuncture can affect just about all of the bodily systems, including the musculoskeletal, nervous, hormonal, circulatory, immune, as well as the respiratory, digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems. It has proven effective in a wide range of painful conditions and is most commonly used to treat musculoskeletal pain in areas such as the back, neck, shoulders and extremities. It has also been used successfully in the treatment of headaches, migraines, trapped nerves, chronic muscle strain, sports injuries and various kinds of rheumatic and arthritic pain. Some other conditions which may respond favourably to acupuncture are bowel or bladder problems such as IBS or irritable bladder, mild forms of urinary incontinence, menstrual and menopausal symptoms.

Traditional V Medical Acupuncture

As has been explained above, traditional acupuncture bases its practice on ancient philosophical principles and selects acupuncture points relating to channels of Qi. On the other hand, medical acupuncture bases its practice on a modern understanding of anatomy, physiology and pathology and selects acupuncture sites in accordance with neurophysiological principles.

Despite its non-scientific bases, traditional acupuncture is by no means less effective. The traditional model may well indeed be a pseudoscience from a Western standpoint, however, just because we cant measure Qi doesn't mean to say for sure that it doesn't exist. Whether traditional or medical, the research speaks for itself.

If acupuncture is something you would like to try to treat an existing ailment, the deciding factor for which approach you choose to take may simply be a matter of your belief system. Either way, whichever approach you choose, there is a strong likelihood that acupuncture may be the right treatment for you.

Further Reading

This article provides a brief overview of the practice of acupuncture in the UK, highlighting the main differences between the traditional Eastern model and the Western medical approach. It is by no means comprehensive and interested readers should refer to the reading list provided below: Acupuncture in Practice: Beyond Points and Meridians by Anthony Campbell

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