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Acupuncture: does it really help with pain?

Acupuncture, a Chinese practice that involves the insertion of fine needles into the skin, has been used as a complementary treatment in Western medicine for some time. Despite its growing prominence, the supposed health benefits of acupuncture remains a point of contention amongst the medical community.

Certainly, if you tell your doctor that you’d like to channel your “Qi” or “life force” to help with a particular malady, they’re likely to recommend a more traditional, scientifically-backed form of treatment first.

A small number of studies, however, have highlighted the potential to offer some relief. Scientists suggest that the stimulation to nerves and muscle tissue are likely behind any benefit, rather than Qi energy.

So what does acupuncture entail? Which conditions is there evidence of it aiding? And what are the baseless claims that you can discard?

Acupuncture in practice

A qualified acupuncturist will ask you about medical history before your session, and perhaps conduct a quick physical examination.

If they are happy you are fit to proceed, you will sit or lie down to commence the session.

Needles should be single-use, sterilised and around 30mm in length. These needles are inserted into specific “acupuncture points” either just beneath the skin or sometimes deeper to the muscle tissue. Acupuncturists maintain that the body has over 500 such points – between 1 to 12 will be worked on during a typical session. Once inserted, the needle may remain in place for up to 30 minutes. No major pain should be experienced, just a tingle or slight ache.

A session lasts between 20 and 40 minutes, with practitioners often claiming 6 to 12 sessions may be required to deal with a condition.

How it can be useful

There is reasonable evidence that acupuncture can prove effective for headaches, chronic lower back pain, dental pain and osteoarthritis of the knee. It has also been shown to offer relief from discomfort during a gastrointestinal endoscopy, as well as nausea and vomiting after an operation. Some scientists argue that the latter is the only instance for which there is rock-solid proof.

A lack of evidence

There is debate elsewhere about how acupuncture trials should be carried out and how conclusive they currently are. The practice is often promoted as being effective for chronic pain, neck pain, asthma, insomnia, depression, sciatica, stroke and tinnitus. However, there is little or no quality evidence to back up claims for these conditions.

Meanwhile, some scientific trials have shown that acupuncture might not work for quitting smoking, weight loss or in relieving rheumatoid arthritis.

Precautions

If you decide to try acupuncture for yourself, there should be no harm. Ensure you go with a qualified acupuncturist, who is a member of either the Acupuncture Foundation Professional Association (AFPA) or Acupuncture Council of Ireland.

The slight risk of bleeding is worth taking into account if you have a condition such as haemophilia or are taking medication that prevents blood clotting. If you have a blood disorder or any medical concerns, consult your GP first. Pregnant women can safely avail of acupuncture but should let the acupuncturist know of their condition.

For more on family health, head for the Vhi Health Hub.