Acupuncture: Does it really work?

Georgia Chambers

To most people, the idea of being prodded with needles sounds anything but appealing.

But, with more and more of us are turning to holistic forms of medicine for our health needs, acupuncture is making a comeback.

An ancient method of medicine originating in China, acupuncture involves stimulating certain points on the body with tiny needles. Its main purpose is to alleviate pain but can also be used to treat a variety of other health conditions.

Due to its millennia-old origins, scientists aren’t sure how exactly acupuncture works, but – thanks to a plethora of anecdotal evidence supporting its usage, they know it definitely does something - it's even offered on the NHS as a complementary medicine.

So, what's the point of all these needles? We chat with some experts to find out more:

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture involves small needles being placed into different points of the body (Shutterstock)

In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s believed that disease is caused by disruptions to the flow of energy, or Qi (pronounced 'chee'), in the body. Acupuncture is thought to stimulate points in the body, releasing this Qi.

Whilst this may mean little to some, the challenge for acupuncturists today is to understand it from a western medicine viewpoint.

A typical acupuncture session will involve needles being placed into specific places on the body, which practitioners call acupuncture points. Whilst 12 needles are used on average during a session, that number can vary depending on your symptoms. Once the needles are in place, they are left in position for a length of time lasting between a few minutes to around 30 minutes.

Uses of acupuncture

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are over 40 different conditions and symptoms that are treated effectively by acupuncture, including rheumatoid, arthritis, nausea, TMJ, headaches, menstrual pain and lower back pain.

Currently, however, NICE only recommends considering acupuncture as a treatment option for two conditions: migraines and chronic tension-type headaches.

New research is also paving the way for acupuncture as a treatment for psychological conditions.

One study published as part of a Special Issue on Acupuncture to Foster Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in Medical Acupuncture demonstrated acupuncture to be an effective complementary approach in improving psychological pain symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Research has also suggested acupuncture as therapy for conditions such as anxiety and insomnia alongside traditional treatment.

Mental health charity Anxiety UK, for example, offers an acupuncture service to its members.

“While the number of people who accessed this service to date is small, the results have been positive,” said Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK.

He added: “We know anecdotally that many people find complementary therapies used to support conventional care can provide enormous benefit, although it should be remembered they are used in addition and not instead of seeking medical advice from a doctor."

A similar story is true for insomnia sufferers, who may find acupuncture useful alongside traditional treatments.

The National Sleep Foundation said: “More research is needed to find out exactly how much acupuncture can improve sleep, but it can help you feel more relaxed and less anxious, which may encourage you to fall asleep easier.

“Acupuncture has also been shown to help manage sleep apnea, perhaps because it strengthens the tongue and prevents it from dropping back in the night and blocking your airway.”

Is acupuncture painful?

Acupuncture needles are about the size of a human hair so typically, the practice is not painful.

Daniel Elliott, an acupuncturist at the London Acupuncture Clinic, said: “Patients may feel a slight tingling or nothing.

“The number one response from nervous patients when they first have acupuncture is ‘is that it?’ It’s also important to note that while acupuncturist use needles, these are very different and much finer than the ones used for injections.”

Where is acupuncture available?

Acupuncture is sometimes available on the NHS, although access to these services is limited.

In most cases, you will have to pay for private treatment, with initial sessions costing anything between £40-£70.

If you’re considering trying acupuncture, it’s recommended you first discuss this with your GP.

Acupuncture clinics in London

The London Acupuncture Clinic, Marylebone

Self-described as London’s premiere acupuncture centre, the London Acupuncture clinic offers services for a variety of conditions.

In particular, its practitioners specialise in acupuncture for gynaecology, fertility and IVF support.

Book now

The GinSen Clinic, Kensington and Chelsea

The GinSen clinic offers acupuncture for a variety of health conditions (The GinSen Clinic )

Experts at the GinSen Clinic have over 18 years of experience combining acupuncture with natural Chinese medicine.

The treatments specialise in fertility and weight loss as well as anxiety and stress.

Book now

The Sleep Centre, Harley Street

The Sleep Centre offers acupuncture as one of its treatment services for sleep disorders.

To gain access to the services, you’ll need to be referred by your GP.

Find out more here.