Acupuncture that has its origins in Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on there being a system of energy channels in the body.
Traditional therapists believe that needles inserted into the skin release the flow of energy and restore a healthy balance to the body. Traditional therapists are not registered health professionals. This section is about western medical acupuncture.
Western medical acupuncture
This is based on current medical knowledge and evidence-based medicine. It’s sometimes available within the NHS.
During an acupuncture session, the therapist inserts fine sterile needles just below the skin into certain “trigger points”. The trigger points are specific places thought to affect the nerves in the skin and muscle. This can send messages to the brain. Stimulating the nerves in this way may release natural chemicals in the body such as endorphins. Endorphins are hormones that give you a feeling of well-being.
An acupuncturist may be a member of a team working in a pain clinic or part of a palliative care (symptom control) team. Some doctors, nurses and physiotherapists are trained in western medical acupuncture.
Some studies show acupuncture has helped reduce sickness in people who have had surgery or chemotherapy. There is also some evidence that acupuncture may help reduce pain in people with cancer, but more research is needed.
There’s some evidence that acupuncture may help in treating other problems such as breathlessness and a dry mouth. Acupuncture is also sometimes used to treat menopausal symptoms, but it’s not yet clear how effective it is for this.
In general, when carried out by a trained professional, acupuncture is safe and side effects or complications are rare.
It’s not advisable to have acupuncture if you are having treatment, such as chemotherapy, that could affect your blood count. This may result in a lower than normal number of white blood cells, which increases your risk of infection. You should also avoid acupuncture if you have a lower than normal number of platelets (blood cells that help blood to clot). This can increase your risk of bleeding.
If you have, or are at risk of, lymphoedema, you should avoid having acupuncture in the limb that’s affected or at risk. Lymphoedema is swelling to part of the body caused by damage to the lymphatic system. Check with your doctor if you’re thinking about having acupuncture.