Acupuncture has been around for a long time. Like, 2000 years long. But despite its ripe old age, the ancient practice still gets around 10,000 Google searches a month in the UK alone, while practitioners from London to Leeds are in higher demand than ever. A key component of traditional Chinese medicine, the benefits of acupuncture are said to range from easing chronic headaches and joint or muscle pain to helping beat stress, heal skin conditions and even tackle fertility issues. And while Charlotte from Sex and the City might not have much luck during her infamous appointment with Dr. Mao, recent studies into the effectiveness of acupuncture are doing much to silence the sceptics.
One thing that still remains shrouded in mystery, however, is just how acupuncture needles inserted into the skin’s surface manage to have such deep effects. There are plenty of theories, of course, both new and old, which we’ll delve into in a moment, but whether it’s simply an incredibly effective placebo or real medical-level healing, the fact remains that acupuncture is more popular than ever.
With Eastern practices and a more holistic approach to health being increasingly embraced by the West, more of us are seeking alternatives or at least non-medicated add-ons to secure our well-being—especially when it comes to managing long-term conditions like chronic pain. But is acupuncture really the fix-all option it’s hyped up to be? I’ve done some digging (and tried it out myself) to discover the science behind acupuncture and whether or not it really works.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is based on the idea that energy, called Qi (pronounced “chee”), flows around the body via a network of meridians or channels, and this is what keeps us feeling healthy and balanced. Illness is a result of this Qi becoming disrupted.
To restore the flow of this energy, fine acupuncture needles are inserted into the skin, sometimes lightly and other times a little deeper to reach muscle tissue, at various “acupuncture points” that sit along these meridians. During a session, your practitioner will insert the needles into the points around the body that relate to your particular symptoms.
What happens during an acupuncture appointment?
This will vary depending on your condition, but most acupuncture appointments should start with a consultation. Your practitioner will ask about your general health, lifestyle, diet and if you have any history of related conditions. They’ll likely also inspect the colour, shape and texture of your tongue, as it can give hints of what’s going on with your gut and digestive system—a huge indicator of your health overall. They don’t call the gut the “second brain” for nothing!
Then you’ll begin treatment. Again, the form this takes can vary widely, but you’ll likely sit or lie down on a bed while your practitioner inserts needles into the necessary points—most treatment sessions will involve up to 12 acupuncture points, while some may include additional twisting of needles, applying heat to warm up the body, or low electrical currents that flow through the needles to stimulate muscles. Once you’re all pin-cushioned up, you stay in place for anything from 15 to 45 minutes—you’re encouraged to relax during this time, though we admit, it may feel strange.
How does acupuncture work?
This is the matter up for debate. One modern theory that’s specific to acupuncture for pain and stress management, is that when the needles are inserted, they stimulate sensory nerves either under the skin’s surface or in the muscles. This triggers the brain’s release of neurotransmitters or hormones, such as pain-relieving and mood-boosting endorphins—the more regular your treatments, the more neurotransmitters and endorphins stimulated and the better you’ll feel as a result.
The British Acupuncture Council follows a similar reasoning in that the needles are used to kick-start the body’s own ability to heal most conditions naturally. “The aim is to direct the flow of Qi to trigger your body’s healing response and to restore physical, emotional and mental equilibrium,” explains the website. “Treatment is designed to affect your whole being as well as your symptoms so, as the condition being treated improves, you may notice other health problems resolve and an increased feeling of well-being.”
A more recent theory expands on this, suggesting that the tiny injuries caused by the needles cause a sluggish immune system to react by increasing blood flow and ramping up the supply of infection-fighting and wound-healing chemicals, or anti-inflammatory proteins, that are needed for the body to repair itself.
Is there science to prove it's not a sham?
Yes and no—which is always confusing. While there have been countless studies on the efficacy of acupuncture for pain management, those that yield positive results are often criticised on the grounds of small sample sizes or flawed methodology. However, a 2012 meta-analysis carried out by nine medical researchers and involving 17,922 patients found that acupuncture was indeed effective as a treatment for chronic pain conditions (specifically back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain), concluding that results were proven to be more than simply placebo effect.
Fewer conclusive studies have so far been conducted into the effectiveness of acupuncture on other conditions such as stress, fertility problems and skin conditions, though current evidence suggests that the increased blood flow and regulation of hormone imbalances that result from acupuncture treatment may be the key to improving these also.
A great resource for keeping an eye on the latest research into acupuncture for various health problems is the A to Z research index compiled by the British Acupuncture Council, which you can find at acupuncture.org.uk.
Real Talk: "I tried acupuncture—here's what happened"
So here’s the situation: I suffer from chronic eczema. By that I mean I’m not just dealing with the odd dry patch here and there when the weather wreaks havoc. At its worst, I’ve been covered, literally, from head-to-toe (eyelids included) in huge, angry splodges of nummular eczema—one of the trickiest kinds to treat. There’s no cure, steroid creams have varying effects (I’m not a huge fan of them anyway) and it can be really, bloody painful. Not to mention it’s exhausting. So last summer I decided to try acupuncture—why not, right? After Googling and asking around, I decided to go with the London Acupuncture Clinic in Marylebone. On the first appointment, my practitioner, Inga, asked me about my skin history, inspected my eczema (which was widespread and raging), studied my tongue and then got straight to work with the needles. It was pretty swift.
Different acupuncture points are used depending on your condition, so for eczema treatment, which Inga told me involves releasing heat and inflammation from the body, I had needles inserted into my lower legs, hands and ears. Did I feel them going in? Yes, but I do mean it when I say it’s more of a light, fleeting sting than actual OMG-pain. During my first session, Inga left me to chill with the needles in for around 20 minutes, which eventually increased to around 40 minutes as our sessions went on. While it does feel strange to lie there like a human pin cushion, I was relaxed enough to actually have a quick snooze—which goes to show how painless it all is.
I did hope for miraculous, immediate results—because who doesn’t want that? But sadly, this wasn’t the case. It took four weekly treatments and a course of Chinese herbs prescribed by Inga before I started to see a change, which is partly why acupuncture can become an expensive option. After the one-month mark, however, my eczema began to stabilise. The redness had gone down, it had retreated from my face, neck and shoulders, and only to remain on my arms with far less severity. We dropped down to fortnightly treatments, and after two of those, I decided I was healed enough to end the course. Was the eczema completely gone forever? Unfortunately, no, which is the nature of this beast. But it was greatly reduced and far easier to manage. The next time I’m caught in a prolonged eczema explosion, I’ve already decided that I’ll definitely try acupuncture again.