The term ‘acupuncture’ describes the stimulation of specific points of the body using a variety of techniques. The treatment typically involves fine needles being inserted into the skin to stimulate the nerves and muscles.

Acupuncture is used to help treat a number of conditions, such as:

- headaches and migraines

- lower back pain
- osteoarthritis
- anxiety
- asthma
- fertility issues

This fact-sheet will outline the two key forms, Chinese acupuncture and medical acupuncture. We will explore the benefits of acupuncture, the cost of the treatment and what to expect from a consultation.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a complementary therapy that has existed as part of traditional Chinese medicine for many years. There are some misconceptions surrounding the topic of acupuncture and debate surrounding its role as a medical treatment. However, the past 30 years has seen a growing body of research firmly establish acupuncture as a recognised option within standard healthcare.

Through the insertion of fine needles in the skin and muscle, acupuncture has been found to increase the release of endorphins and serotonins, the body’s natural painkillers.

There are two key forms of acupuncture, these are:

Chinese acupuncture

The overall objective of Chinese acupuncture is to rebalance the body’s natural energy flow (known as qi). The treatment is based on the principle that physical and mental illnesses are caused by imbalances within the body. When an individual’s qi or vital energy is unable to flow freely throughout the body, the body’s energy meridians become obstructed. This could be the result of a range of conditions, including emotional and physical stress or poor nutrition and injury.

Traditional acupuncturists will focus on correcting the underlying cause of the illness. The practitioner will not focus on the illness itself, but on the individual as a whole. They will consider their symptoms, mapping them out and observing how they relate. After this diagnosis the acupuncturist will work to renew the individual’s energy flow. They will focus on rebalancing the body and restoring its ability to heal naturally.

For more information about Chinese acupuncture, please visit our full fact-sheet.

Medical acupuncture

Medical acupuncture (commonly referred to as western acupuncture) is carried out after a medical diagnosis has been made. Practiced by healthcare practitioners, medical acupuncture is generally regarded as part of conventional medicine.

This form of acupuncture uses current knowledge of anatomy, physiology and pathology. The professionals will look at the principles of evidence-based medicine, rather than following the traditional principles of qi to treat the patient.

For more information about medical acupuncture, please visit our full fact-sheet.

The benefits of acupuncture

Research continues to look into the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment option. While there is scientific evidence that it can benefit a number of health conditions, many believe more research needs to be done.

Reviews carried out by The Cochrane Collaboration found evidence that acupuncture may be effective in treating conditions such as:

migraines and tension-headaches

irritable bowel syndrome

nausea and vomiting post-surgery

chronic lower back pain.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommend acupuncture as a treatment option for tension headaches, migraine and chronic lower back pain.

According to the British Acupuncture Council, many people turn to acupuncture to help relieve aches and pains. This can include osteoarthritis and headaches. People also choose treatment to help manage common health problems, such as an overactive bladder.

Other people look to the therapy for stress-relief and relaxation.

Visiting an acupuncture practitioner

Does acupuncture hurt?

The needles used in acupuncture are so fine that many people feel nothing during the insertion. People often describe the overall sensation as a tingling or a mild ache in the muscles. The tingling sensation is thought to be the redirection of the qi.

Many people say that during the treatment they feel extremely relaxed. This calm, relaxed feeling can continue long after the needles are removed.

What to expect

If you choose to have treatment, you will have an initial consultation with the practitioner. This is where you will have the opportunity to discuss your symptoms, your concerns and why you are seeking acupuncture.

The acupuncturist will ask you about your medical history, your diet and general well-being. It is important to tell the practitioner if you are pregnant, epileptic or have any conditions that affect the blood.

They may look at your tongue, take your pulse and feel for any muscle tension or pain. Depending on what your symptoms are, they will devise a course of acupuncture treatment suited to you. The course of the treatment will depend on your symptoms.

The acupuncturist may choose a selection of acupuncture points throughout the course. Depending on your treatment, this could include inserting up to 12 needles. They may insert each needle to immediately remove it, or they may leave the needles in place for 10 to 20 minutes.

The cost of treatment will vary. There are however many options to suit all budgets and lifestyles such as one-to-one consultations and multi-bed clinics.

What qualifications should acupuncturists have?

Currently there are no laws in place in the UK regarding the level of training or experience required to become an acupuncturist. People often find it reassuring to know that the practitioner is trained to a high standard and is working to a safe level of practice. Because of this, there are many professional associations that voluntarily regulate the profession. These associations usually ask practitioners to meet certain requirements before being eligible for membership.

The eligibility requirements will vary for each professional organisation. Generally, practitioners will be asked to provide evidence of the appropriate training. Before having treatment you are advised to check that the acupuncturist has relevant qualifications and insurance, or is a member of a professional body. Therapy Directory only lists those who can provide proof of either.