What is acupuncture and what does it do?
Acupuncture is one aspect of Traditional Eastern Medicine. It refers to the practice of inserting needles into the body at specific points. I am a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) acupuncturist. TCM is a system of medicine in its own right and the training is substantial (3-year, full-time BSc). The theory behind all Eastern philosophy is that all living beings are possessed of an animating energy: in China, this is called Qi (pronounced chee) and in Indian culture, this is called prana but they are the same. This energy runs throughout the body in channels, which we call meridians and the energy can be accessed at certain points on the surface of the skin - acupoints - think of sockets in an electrical circuit. If any blockages occur in a meridian, this will eventually manifest as some kind of problem. The reason behind inserting needles at a certain point is to disrupt the blockage and encourage the energy to flow smoothly..
Eastern medicine can seem almost totally contrary to Western medicine. I think two important distinctions from the Westen medical model are:
Western medicine suppresses the symptoms of disharmony, whereas Eastern medicine aims to restore harmony so the body, when balanced, stands the best chance of healing itself (with the help of sleep, the right diet, managing stress etc). We encourage nature's healing mechanism.
Physical, mental and emotional aspects are always part of a consultation. The idea of a Mind-Body connection is now accepted by Western medicine, but it was only in the 1980s that the impact of stress was 'scientifically proven' to be injurious to health. This seems bizarre to me - talking about a connection between things that are clearly part of a whole? This seems like talking about a connection between the front and back of a plate! Chinese medicine has understood the interconnection of the mind, body and emotion for at least 3,000 years.
What can I expect in a session?
At your initial consult, you might spend most of the session drilling down into the information you have given the acupuncturist. A lot of information needs to be gathered, both in terms of the patient answering a whole host of questions, but also in terms of the acupuncturist assessing the patient's tongue, eyes, face and many other physical signs. And then there is pulse diagnosis: this is a subtle skill to learn and takes many years to acquire any level of mastery. The radial pulse is felt at three different points to assess the energy of the main meridians in the body and to help decide where needles need to be positioned.
The needles are then inserted: acupuncture needles are sterile, single-use only and are incinerated after use. People often ask prior to their first session whether acupuncture hurts. My stock response is: "A lot less than my deep, remedial massage!" Regular acupuncture needles are extremely fine - about the thickness of a human hair. You often feel nothing much on insertion. I then 'twiddle' the needles to stimulate the Qi and I am looking for you to feel something at this point: a deep throb, ache or pulse. It generally doesn't feel sharp, as you might expect.
Because I am trained in a number of other therapies, if time permits, I will also use reflexology, some massage or Reiki while the needles are doing their thing - this seems to provide a better outcome for my patients. I feel that by combining therapies in this way I am sending 'different messages' to the body towards the same healing endpoint.
What can acupuncture help with?
Because it is a holistic system of medicine, acupuncture can help with all manner of conditions. I have helped patients with fertility, skin conditions, migraine, musculoskeletal problems, gastrointestinal issues, endocrine disorders and it is of particular use with conditions of the nervous system: insomnia, anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue.
N.b. Physios tend to be trained in dry needling, developed solely to resolve musculoskeletal issues.