General information about acupuncture

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture treatment involves fine needles being inserted through the skin and briefly left in position. Sometimes manual or low voltage electrical stimulation is applied to assist the process. The number of needles varies but may be only two or three. The practitioner will assess each patient’s case and treatment will be tailored to the individual; so it is impossible to give more than this general idea of what your particular treatment might involve. Acupuncture can be used to treat a range of conditions and practitioners often vary enormously in the kind of conditions they are happy to treat. Broadly speaking, treatment might be once a week to begin with, then at longer intervals as the condition responds. A typical course of treatment lasts 5 to 8 sessions.

Results can never be guaranteed. Some people react very well to acupuncture while other people notice little change. In addition, some patients notice that acupuncture promotes relaxation, and results in a feeling of improved wellbeing. Many find that they feel better after acupuncture treatment, even if, unfortunately, there is no real improvement in their medical condition.

Acupuncture stimulates the nerves in skin and muscle, and can produce a variety of effects. We know that it increases the body's release of natural painkillers - endorphin and serotonin - in the pain pathways of both the spinal cord and the brain. This modifies the way pain signals are received.

There is very good scientific evidence showing that acupuncture can help with short term relief of knee, neck and low back pain, and tension type headaches and migraine. It has also been shown to relieve nausea and vomiting in some situations. For other problems, there is little good scientific evidence that we can rely on because not enough good quality research work has been done. The commonest reason to try acupuncture is to treat painful problems.

Click here for more detailed information about medical acupuncture and our understanding of how it works.

Why choose a medical acupuncturist?

Acupuncture may be very useful in improving symptoms you experience, such as pain. However, although acupuncture may help you to feel better, acupuncture will not cure a serious underlying problem, such as serious lung disease, heart disease, tumours or cancers, for example. It is, therefore, important that you continue to seek normal medical advice and continue with essential medical treatment. A medical acupuncturist will be able to discuss your medical problems with you, will understand the results of medical tests you have had, and will understand what medication you are taking and why. He or she can advise you on whether you need to consult your own doctor, and will be able to discuss your case with your own doctor, with your permission and when necessary.

Acupuncture - past, present and future

Acupuncture-like techniques may have been used for over 5000 years, if evidence from Ötzi the Iceman is considered. It has been practiced for many centuries, and by many different countries and cultures. However, we believe acupuncture started in ancient China, possibly as long as 4,000 years ago. The most well known system of acupuncture was developed in the Far East from around 2000 years ago. This was first introduced into Europe in the 17th Century, but widespread interest in the technique did not develop until the political events of the early 1970s allowed travel restrictions between East and West to be eased.

In the past thirty years, because of the huge public interest in the subject, considerable scientific research on acupuncture has been carried out - although much remains to be done. We now know much more about how acupuncture works and some of the myths can be laid to rest. It is demonstrably untrue to say that the results of acupuncture are all in the mind. As we learn more about it, the possibilities of using acupuncture alongside orthodox medicine increase. The distinction between complementary or alternative medicine and conventional medicine is becoming blurred as acupuncture is accepted in medicine. Acupuncture is already available in most hospital pain clinics and it is provided by an ever-increasing number of GPs and hospital doctors.

For a brief view of the history of acupuncture in China, you can read this published summary by Professor Kan-Wen Ma.

For a short description of the 'modernisation' of acupuncture, you can read this published letter by Dr Anthony Campbell.

Why do you use the term 'medical acupuncture'?

Acupuncture originated from China, where it is used as one of a range of treatments provided in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine is often called TCM. Although TCM is taught in medical schools in China, TCM doctors have a very different way of looking at how the human body works. The TCM idea of disease and symptoms is hard to reconcile with our modern western knowledge of disease. You should also be aware that China also trains large numbers of conventional medical doctors. It is a myth to believe that TCM is the only treatment available for the billions of people who live in modern day China. In fact, the Chinese seem to live with a mixture of both TCM and modern medicine.

Many Western doctors accept that acupuncture treatment does work in a wide range of conditions and for a variety of patients. We want to use this treatment to help our patients. However, our modern medical knowledge makes it very hard for Western doctors to accept the teachings of TCM - which to many Western doctors do not fit with our modern understanding of how the body works and are not supported by scientific evidence.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of Western scientific research into pain, which has helped us understand how acupuncture might work. In particular, we know that acupuncture causes the release of natural pain-killing and healing chemicals within our bodies.

Some of the members of the BMAS are not only medical doctors, but are also trained in TCM. However, most of the members of the BMAS simply use acupuncture as part of their medical practice. They are "medical" acupuncturists.

We often have debates within the society about the value of TCM. It is useful to have two different approaches to acupuncture because this stimulates thought and encourages research.

Where to go for acupuncture

The BMAS believes that acupuncture should only be used by trained practitioners who can adequately assess the risks and benefits of applying the therapy.  All members of the Society are regulated health professionals and are subject to the Society’s Code of Practice and Complaints Procedure.   This is in addition to meeting the requirements of the statutory regulatory body for their profession. Our Code of Practice is available to download as a PDF file. Download the BMAS Code of Practice here.

At the moment, anybody in the UK is allowed to call themselves an acupuncturist and can start advertising and practising acupuncture immediately, regardless of qualifications or experience. This is not ideal within a healthcare setting, so patients are strongly advised to check the credentials of their practitioner.

Acupuncture is a potent therapy, and whilst it is generally safer than most conventional treatments, it should be used with care to avoid serious adverse effects or interactions with other treatments.

The ideal promoted by the BMAS is that acupuncture should be fully incorporated into orthodox medicine and used as one of the therapeutic tools available in treatment of a defined range of conditions.

To find a BMAS member practising acupuncture near you use our Find a Practitioner function, or visit the BMAS London Teaching Clinic, established as a centre of excellence for the practice of medical acupuncture.