Part 1 - Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a branch of traditional Chinese medicine that involves inserting fine needles at selected points on the skin to balance the body's energy (chi), thereby treating and preventing disease. It's used to treat a wide range of common ailments, relieve pain and promote general health.

History and theory

Acupuncture has been used in China for more than 3,000 years and for many centuries in Japan and Korea. Missionaries and doctors brought the treatment to Europe in the 17th century. It has grown in popularity since the 1970s and is now widely taught and practised in the West.

The therapy's roots lie in oriental philosophy, which states that all life is based on the interplay of two dynamic forces: yin and yang. In the body, these forces are regulated according to the flow of energy in 14 main channels, known as meridians. Most of these meridians connect with a particular inner organ.

There are many acupoints along each meridian. Inserting needles at these points is said to help regulate the function of the related organ by helping the flow of energy. There are more than 300 acupoints on the body.

Acupressure, a branch of acupuncture, uses fingertip pressure on these acupoints instead of needles to facilitate the flow of energy.

How does it work?

Acupuncture is thought to trigger the release of endorphins in the brain. These chemicals affect various body systems, reduce pain and make you feel good.

Traditionally, it's believed that acupuncture removes blockages and promotes the flow of energy along the meridians, improving the functioning of the internal organs. Some researchers believe the resulting changes in energy can be measured with techniques such as Kirlian photography, which is said to take pictures of energy fields, but more proof is needed.

What's it used for?

Acupuncture has been shown to alleviate ailments including asthma, headaches, menstrual and digestive problems, high blood pressure and pain. It's also increasingly used in obstetrics and has been found to reduce morning sickness and ease labour.

The World Health Organisation recognises more than 100 conditions that can be helped by acupuncture.

What to expect?

The therapist will ask you to sit or lie on a treatment couch. You may remain fully clothed or be asked to remove outer garments.

He or she will then feel 12 pulses - including one for each internal organ - along the radial artery on the outside of each wrist. The abdomen and certain acupuncture points may also be checked for tenderness or pain.

Next, the colour, shape and coating of the tongue, face and skin are checked for signs indicating those internal organs that have problems. The sound of your voice, your breath and any body odours will be noted and questions asked to confirm the diagnosis.

Acupuncture points will then be selected for treatment and needles inserted, either by hand or through a guide tube. This should be quick and painless. Some people feel a mild sensation as the needles are inserted, but this usually passes quickly.

The needles are small and fine. They are usually made of stainless steel, although occasionally they're gold and silver. They're sterilised to prevent any risk of infection and most are disposable. The needles used vary in length and thickness according to the body part and the type of acupuncture performed.

As few as one or two or more than 20 needles may be used in treatment and they are usually left in for 15 to 30 minutes. A course of ten treatments at weekly intervals is common.

Acupressure, a variant in which the practitioner uses manipulation rather than penetration to alleviate pain or other symptoms, is in widespread use in Japan and has begun to find adherents in the United States and elsewhere. Also known as shiatsu, acupressure is administered by pressing with the fingertips-and sometimes the elbows or knees-along a complex network of trigger points in the patient's body.

Other therapies such as moxa and cupping may be used alongside acupuncture. Moxa uses a burning, aromatic herb to warm the skin. Cupping involves placing metal or glass suction cups on cold or painful parts of the body to increase circulation.

Finding a practitioner

Most qualified acupuncturists are members of the British Acupuncture Council and have the letters MBAcC (Member of the British Acupuncture Council) after their name. This means they've completed a minimum two-year full-time accredited course, or a part-time equivalent, that includes training in anatomy and physiology and extensive clinical practice. They'll also have full indemnity and liability insurance cover.

Some medical doctors, nurses and physiotherapists practise acupuncture. They may have completed full acupuncture training or taken a weekend course on a specific topic, such as pain relief. Always check qualifications and don't be afraid to ask about training and experience.

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