Pins and Needles
I asked Julia to explain how acupuncture works and how it can improve wellness and increase vitality.
In a nutshell, what is acupuncture and how does it work?
Acupuncture is one branch of a traditional medical system that has ancient roots in China (other branches of that system include Chinese herbal medicine and ‘tui na’ which is Chinese massage therapy).
This system views the body holistically, the physical and the mental/emotional states intimately connected. Disease is considered to be, in essence, an imbalance of the energies of the internal organs that each have influence over particular physiological processes and mental/emotional realms. Acupuncture, by stimulating the energy or ‘qi’ of the body and its organs via points situated along a network of channels, aims to restore equilibrium and bring the whole system back to health.
What do you recommend for someone who doesn’t like needles?
The first thing to note about the tools of an acupuncturist’s work - the needles - is that they’re nothing like hypodermic needles used for giving injections; they are much finer, hardly thicker than a hair. When the needle punctures the skin you may not even notice; however, there is generally some degree of sensation - sometimes a tingly, electric feeling or a dull ache - when the needle contacts the body’s ‘qi’ or energy.
So, the needle sensation is usually minimal and acupuncture needles are nothing to be scared of (honestly!) Nevertheless, there are some individuals out there who are genuinely ‘needle-phobic’. Luckily, for these people there’s an alternative: ‘tui na’ or traditional Chinese massage is based on all the same principles and theory as acupuncture and uses a variety of pressure techniques to stimulate points and channels, rather than utilising needles. Tui na can be used on its own of course, but in my practice I often combine acupuncture and tui na - especially when treating musculoskeletal conditions - and find the two disciplines complement each other to great effect.
What conditions can acupuncture treat?
Acupuncture can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions. Some of the most common that I encounter are musculoskeletal (backache, frozen shoulder, repetitive strain injuries, traumatic injuries, sciatica and so on), digestive complaints such as irritable bowel, headaches and migraine, insomnia, anxiety, painful periods, infertility, hay fever and rhinitis or sinusitis.
In a sense, we acupuncturists are like your average GP in that we see patients with every type of condition. The ones I’ve mentioned are our ‘bread and butter’ but there’s hardly a month goes by without me meeting a patient with a condition that I’ve not heard of before (chikungunya anybody?)
It’s worth noting that the NHS now commonly refers patients to acupuncturists for pain management, acknowledging that it can be helpful in dealing with chronic musculoskeletal pain for which painkillers are not the long-term answer. If you fall into this category, why not ask your GP about acupuncture referral? You might be eligible to receive a course of 6 (sometimes more) free appointments. In addition, many private health insurance companies these days offer cover for acupuncture.
How many treatments are needed and how often do you recommend treatment?
There are no hard-and-fast rules but, as a general guideline, if you’ve suffered with your condition for more than a year, an initial course of 4-6 weekly treatments will usually be required, with follow-ups spaced more infrequently after that. A condition that’s recently occurred, on the other hand (e.g. you’ve pulled a muscle in your back whilst gardening at the weekend), may only need one or two sessions to put you back on track.
Unfortunately, there are always those who are looking for a ‘quick fix’. Safe to say, if you’ve had chronic constipation triggered by poor diet and a stressful job/domestic situation for the best part of your adult life, the constipation isn’t going to magically vanish after one or two treatments!
What should someone look for when finding an acupuncturist?
The best recommendation is word-of-mouth. However, it’s also important to check that your practitioner is a registered member of the either the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), the British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS), or the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ATCM) - all governing bodies that demand high standards of safe practice amongst their membership.
Acupuncture has been around for centuries, and over that time different ‘schools’ or styles of practice have developed, not only in China but in countries like Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Your acupuncturist may be a ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)’ practitioner, a ‘Five Element’ practitioner, or they might be a Western medicine-trained practitioner such as a GP or physiotherapist who has learned some basic acupuncture methods to incorporate into their work for the benefit of their patients.
My advice would be to make contact with your therapist before booking an appointment and find out as much as you can, especially with regard to their experience in treating your condition.
What’s the most interesting acupuncture experience that you’ve had?
Where to start? I’ve been in practice over 20 years and never cease to be amazed at what can be achieved with acupuncture, especially when a patient fully takes on board the holistic nature of Chinese medicine, incorporating its principles into their diet, lifestyle and general outlook. I can also vouch for the efficacy of acupuncture from a personal standpoint, having used it to help myself recover from a slipped disc among other things.
Julia practices acupuncture in London at the Brackenbury Natural Health Clinic and in Canterbury.