Acupuncture is a whole-body treatment that inserts tiny needles into the skin to restore your body's natural balance and improve your health.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is based on the idea that our bodies are mapped by paths or "meridians"; life-energy (Qi) flows around our bodies along these paths. When the Qi is flowing properly, we feel well - in body, mind and spirit. On the other hand, when this flow of energy is blocked, or not balanced, we develop problems with our health and well-being.
An acupuncturist inserts a series of very fine needles into your skin at key pressure points along your energy paths. The aim of this is to affect the flow of energy, encourage your body to heal itself, and restore its natural balance. Acupuncture treats your body, and teaches your body to treat itself.
What is acupuncture good for?
Acupuncture can also help you to stop smoking, and to overcome other addictions, and it is increasingly being recognised as an effective part of rehabilititative treatment for people who have had a stroke. A study in Germany has also indicated that acupuncture can ease the pain and disability caused by arthritis. (Previous trials have shown that acupuncture can relieve pain, but many were small and it was difficult to decide whether the benefits identified were simply the result of the placebo effect.) The research, published in Arthritis and Rheumatism, compared the experience of 357 patients given immediate acupuncture with a further 355 whose treatment started three months later. The researchers, led by Claudia Witte, of the Charite University of Medicine in Berlin, concluded that adding acupuncture to the normal treatment regimes for arthritis - which generally consist of anti-inflammatory drugs - produced "a clinically relevant and persistent benefit".
Acupuncture is also very, very relaxing and can leave you feeling relieved and revived!
Before you go
* Tell the acupuncturist about any medical conditions you have, and treatments or medication you are receiving. You should also tell them if you are, or think you might be, pregnant.
* Avoid big meals or alcohol before your treatment. It may make you uncomfortable and may also confuse your diagnosis or treatment, as digestion can affect the pattern of your pulse.
What to expect from acupuncture
Your first session with the acupuncturist will probably be the longest, as they assess your health and plan your treatment. They will probably ask you a whole range of questions - about your lifestyle, medical history, your diet, your sleeping patterns, your family, and how you feel in yourself. The acupuncturist will also feel your pulse and may well look closely at your tongue, both of which will tell them a lot about your general health, and what's likely to be the most effective treatment for you.
The acupuncturist may use as many as 12 needles at one time in any one of up to 500 points on your body, and will leave these in your skin for anything from a few seconds to half an hour. The needles will all be sterile and should be disposed of after each session. A good acupuncturist will be sensitive to any concerns you have, and can ease any anxiety you have with light massage.
They may also use a smouldering herb called moxa to warm acupuncture points to encourage the body's energy to flow smoothly. You may also have heard of cupping, in which special cups are placed on the skin and warmed to stimulate the acupuncture point.
Some practitioners don't use needles at all; low-energy laser beams stimulate the acupuncture point instead. A course of treatments will usually be made up of between four and eight sessions taken over several months, although the length of course will vary depending on what you need.