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Words by Alexandra Thompson.
Salma Hayek has shared a steamy shot of her having acupuncture for ‘health and wellbeing’.
The Oscar-nominated actress celebrated reaching 12 million followers on Instagram by posting a picture of her back covered in a dozen of the needles.
And Salma is not the only star who swears by acupuncture to keep her feeling her best.
Proving beauty is pain, Kim Kardashian snapped a picture while having acupuncture in her face in 2013, which she ironically captioned ‘relaxing’.
Supermodel Miranda Kerr is also said to be a fan and even credited the alternative practice for helping her overcome whiplash after a car accident in 2013.
With more and more people turning to acupuncture for everything from insomnia to chronic pain, Yahoo looks at what the ancient Chinese medicine is and who could benefit.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves inserting fine needles into the body to stimulate nerves beneath the skin and in the muscles.
Research has shown this triggers the release of feel-good chemicals called endodorphins, which help to relieve pain. It may also dampen down pain transmission to the area of the brain that processes feelings of discomfort.
Practitioners of traditional acupuncture maintain it restores the flow of ‘life force’, called qi, through the body. Blocked qi is said to cause illness. No evidence supports this.
Headaches and migraines
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), which provides guidelines for the NHS, only recommends acupuncture to relieve chronic tension headaches and migraines. Even then, it advises doctors try conventional medicine first.
The ancient medicine was first assessed for headaches in 2001 when a group of global scientists looked at 16 studies with more than 1,150 headache sufferers between them.
They concluded ‘the existing evidence supports the value of acupuncture for the treatment of idiopathic headaches’, ie those that have no clear cause.
Further studies with thousands of participants later showed the alternative treatment’s potential in relieving migraines. Critics argued, however, this is simply due to placebo.
READ MORE: Acupuncture: Does it really work?
Most medical studies require both patients and scientists be blinded to the treatment a participant is receiving to reduce the risk of a placebo effect.
This is tricky with acupuncture, with patients being acutely aware if needles are being inserted into their skin.
To overcome this, some studies have not penetrated the needles as deeply as they otherwise would, while others have wrapped them in sheath. Critics maintain, however, the nerve fibres beneath the skin may still be stimulated.
When compared to no treatment, one study found acupuncture reduced the number of ‘headache days’ by 34% after 12 sessions. It also caused medicine use to go down by 15%.
With infertility affecting up to one in seven couples, more women are turning to alternative medicine to help them conceive.
While a lack of evidence means Nice does not recommend acupuncture as a fertility remedy, studies suggest the ancient medicine may help women become pregnant.
A trial by Tel Aviv University found women were 65% more likely to conceive when they combined acupuncture with the fertility treatment intrauterine insemination (IUI). This involves placing sperm directly into a woman’s womb.
Of the participants who had just IUI and no alternative treatment, 39 per cent became pregnant.
Although unclear exactly why this occurred, acupuncture is thought to reduce stress. When a woman is feeling frazzled, she releases the hormone cortisol. This has been shown to disrupt reproductive hormones.
Dr Hana Visnova, an assisted reproduction specialist at the IVF Cube in Prague, has seen first hand the benefits of acupuncture in those having IVF.
After looking at thousands of women, she noted a six per cent increase in pregnancies among those who had the alternative treatment. Although this may seem small, the outcome can be significant.
“When it comes to fertility treatment, you’re already talking about fine margins between successful and unsuccessful outcomes,” Dr Visnova told Yahoo Style.
“It’s our view anything we can do to tip the balance further in favour of a positive pregnancy is to be encouraged and studied further.”
The team believe acupuncture boosts blood flow to the womb, which may make it more receptive to an embryo during IVF.
“Even if we’re talking about a placebo effect, if the patient is more relaxed then that’s still beneficial,” Dr Visnova said.
“Undergoing IVF can be a stressful time. That is not conducive to reproductive health.
“So if acupuncture can help to reduce this stress then it clearly has its place as part of clinical fertility treatment.”
Acupuncture is commonly used to relieve back, neck and joint pain, however, the evidence supporting this is mixed.
A 2012 study found the alternative treatment to be no better than ‘sham’ acupuncture at easing back, neck or shoulder pain.
And a report released this year by the Cleveland Clinic similarly found lower back pain and knee osteoarthritis are not better relieved with ‘real’ acupuncture than when the needles are just shallowly inserted into the skin.
However, a 2012 study found acupuncture better eased back and neck pain than no treatment or a sham version of the ancient Chinese medicine.
A 2014 trial then found acupuncture was better at dampening knee pain caused by osteoarthritis compared to no treatment but not when compared to sham acupuncture.
Despite the mixed results, an increasing interest in non-drug pain relief means many still turn to the ancient Chinese medicine to ease their aches and pains.
When carried out correctly, the procedure is generally ‘very safe’, according to the NHS. Side effects tend to include pain at the site of the needles, as well as bleeding or bruising.
Perhaps most controversial of all is the suggestion acupuncture could help in the fight against cancer.
Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, told Yahoo Style: “Some people feel that complementary treatments like acupuncture, given alongside conventional medicine, might help with some symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment.
“But there is no scientific research to demonstrate that acupuncture, or other complementary therapies, help in curing cancer or stopping cancer progressing.
“Anyone considering talking a complimentary treatment should check it with their doctor first to make sure that there are no known interactions with any conventional treatments they are taking.”
Scientists are, however, looking into whether acupuncture could relieve side effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea, fatigue and pain.
Where to get acupuncture
In some cases, the NHS will cover the ancient Chinese medicine to relieve migraines and headache. Most patients, however, have to pay for the alternative treatment themselves.
Prices vary between practitioners but often start at around £70 for an hour session.
Unlike conventional medicine, acupuncture is not overseen by an official government body in the UK. The British Acupuncture Council self-regulates the treatment and lists accredited practitioners.