Acupuncture in Oxford
How does acupuncture work? The Chinese medical perspective
Acupuncture is based upon the theories of Chinese medicine, which is rooted in the practical philosophy of Daoism. It focuses on harmony and balance; of the yin and yang, the three treasures (blood and qi, mind, and essence) and the five phases (Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, Fire). Whilst this might seem like a rather simplistic version of the human system, each of these categories breaks down in increasing depth and detail. For instance, each phase represents an organ system and its paired organ (i.e. Spleen and Stomach, Liver and Gallbladder), a tissue (muscles, tendons, etc.), a sensory organ, foods that will benefit and weaken it, colours, seasons, and times of day, which other phases it boosts and reduces, as well as all the functions and attributes of the organs themselves.
As a result of this, some of the terminology used in Chinese medicine becomes quite easy to grasp. For instance, when we refer to heat it is easy to imagine inflammation, warmth, reddening, dryness and pain. If we were to then further categorise a syndrome into heat in the intestines you could quite quickly make comparisons with IBS or other inflammatory gut issues.
Once the diagnosis is decided upon we look at the meridian system. This is a highly detailed and complex mapping of the body, based on the knowledge that the qi/energy is the animating factor that causes the functioning of the system. Therefore, if it is blocked, excessive or weakened in certain areas, correcting these imbalances will ultimately return the balance within the system and return the patient to optimal health and wellbeing.
This is done by inserting needles into the relevant acupoints on the meridians deemed to be out of balance. This would generally involve several needles placed locally (near the affected area) and some systemic points placed distally (elsewhere on the body). For instance, if we return to the IBS example, one would expect to see a cluster of needles on the abdomen to reduce inflammation and increase qi and blood flow in the area. I would also be inclined to insert a few needles in the arms and legs (it depends on exactly what the patient is presenting with as to which points are chosen as everyone is treated individually). The arms because this is where the large and small intestine meridians are and the legs because this is where the stomach and spleen meridians are. I would therefore do several distal points to calm the intestines and boost the digestive system (stomach and spleen) in order to reduce the inflammation, calm the gut and strengthen the digestive system to prevent further issues. In this sense, with Chinese medicine, you focus both on the symptoms and the root of the illness. I would also look at dietary and lifestyle factors that could be causing the issue(s) and change them for behaviours that would improve these.
Whilst it is nice to get an understanding of Chinese medicine from the perspective of a practitioner I accept that this language and way of looking at health and wellbeing is a bit unusual and potentially too loose for a western mindset. We are used to reductionist science with its specificity and minute detail. So, what does scientific research say about acupuncture and are there any theories as to why it works?
How does acupuncture work? The Western medical perspective
The NHS suggests its main actions are due to the release of endorphins (natural pain killers) associated with needle insertion. The British Acupuncture Council goes a bit further, stating, ‘the insertion of needles has an effect on nerves which can relax muscles, over-ride brain signals, reduce inflammation and relax the organs. There are very often chemical changes in body fluids associated with treatment, and there is a great deal of [research] to see how various hormones and neurotransmitters are affected.’ In other words, inserting needles changes biochemistry in the majority, if not all, of the systems of the body, generally towards a harmonious balance. For instance, down-regulating overactive immune systems or up-regulating underactive ones.
One way to illustrate this is to imagine a trauma; a cut or bruise. When this occurs, the immune system floods the area to try and heal it, reduce pain and prevent infection. Acupuncture can be seen as a micro trauma, reminding the immune system that there is an issue in this area and stimulating a response to help it heal. However, that does not explain why a practitioner would put a point in the legs to affect the digestive system, for instance.
There have been some studies showing that radioactive isotopes injected into acupoints rapidly disperse along meridian lines, whereas those injected into random points just disperse locally. And an old piece of research showing that stimulation of a point on the lower leg associated with the eye stimulated the visual cortex of the brain. Thus, whilst we do not understand it fully, there does seem to be some observable changes that correlate to Chinese medical theory.
We are still a long way from understanding how acupuncture works as well as reconciling such different approaches to medicine as we see with allopathic/western medicine and Chinese/eastern medicine. Suffice to say there are thousands of years of evidence showing that acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are useful, effective, and safe for a wide variety of conditions. Indeed, the more research that goes into acupuncture and herbal medicine, the more it seems that Chinese medical theory is validated.
What can acupuncture treat?
The list of conditions that acupuncture is recommended for is ever increasing. This includes many pain conditions, digestive issues, mental health conditions, allergies, skin conditions, insomnia, women’s health issues and men’s health issues, inflammatory conditions, some chronic, degenerative conditions as well as addiction and palliative care. To see a full list of The World Health Organisations recommendations, follow this link and to see a full list of The Acupuncture Evidence Project, please click here. The latter is more extensive and up-to-date.
The areas where there is the most research and recommendations include;
- Most pain conditions, especially back pain, knee pain and arthritic pain
- Headaches and migraines
Among many other pieces of research for the above issues, the latest and largest research came from York University where almost 18,000 participants were treated for the above conditions. It concluded that acupuncture was safe, more than a placebo and also more effective than current conventional medical treatments for all of the above conditions. Other areas with good research include;
- Digestive issues
- Mental health issues
Whilst it is great to see these comprehensive pieces of research coming out, it is important to bear in mind that acupuncture and Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years and for the vast majority of that time was the most valued medical option for whole civilisations. In my mind it therefore has applications and uses in nearly all health issues. However, there are notable exceptions including acute and powerful infections, acute eye and ear conditions, late stages of cancer (for which it has been show to ease symptoms but not prevent mortality) and cases where surgery is necessary.
My experience with acupuncture | Acupuncture in Oxford
With over a decade of experience in acupuncture I have been lucky to have quite a wide range of experiences at helping people improve their health and well-being, both in the short and long-term. I have been practicing acupuncture in Oxfordshire for 5 years now. The areas for which I have found acupuncture to be the most effective and the most efficient are;
- Pain conditions
- Headaches and migraines
I have certainly found it to be valuable for a lot of other conditions as well, including many of those already mentioned. In more complex cases it requires a longer course and dietary and lifestyle changes and in some cases herbal medicine. When combined with herbal medicine, dietary and lifestyle changes, acupuncture can be very powerful for many conditions and leads to much better health outcomes in the long-term.
Testimonials from my acupuncture clients
“I’ve not felt this relaxed in years!”
“I was suffering a lot from stress and tension, particularly across my neck and shoulders. Joe really helped me to release the tension and stress.”
“Acupuncture has been so good for my back pain. It has been so long since it has felt this good.”
“My panic attacks have stopped and my self-confidence is back. I had forgotten what this felt like.”
“My knees work again. The pain has gone. I can go cycling again.”
The acupuncture procedure takes about 30 minutes in total. 5 minutes are taken to insert the needles in the respective locations. On average 15-25 needles are used per session. The needles are then left in for 20 minutes while you relax. They are then taken out and you are allowed to rest for another couple of minutes.
This depends totally on the client, their constitution, the condition and how long it has been going on for. Generally speaking more recent, acute issues are quite easy to resolve and tend to take a few weeks. Chronic, conditions tend to take a few months.
Acupuncture is rarely painful. The majority of points used are barely felt. There are, however, a few points that are uncomfortable, for instance, around the hands and feet, which I avoid where possible.
There are a variety of sensations that can occur. For instance, some people feel warming or cooling sensations around certain points. Some feel movement sensations, even electrical-like sensations.