It is a complementary or alternative medicine (CAM). This means that acupuncture is different in important ways from treatments that are part of conventional western medicine. Unlike conventional treatments, the use of acupuncture is not always based on scientific evidence.
Acupuncture is based on the belief that an energy, or life force, flows through the body in channels called meridians. This life force is known as Qi (pronounced chee).
Practitioners who adhere to traditional beliefs about acupuncture believe that when Qi cannot flow freely through the body, this can cause illness. They also believe that acupuncture can restore the flow of Qi, and so restore health.
Some scientists and acupuncturists believe that acupuncture may stimulate nerves and muscle tissue, and that this may be responsible for any beneficial effects.
Practitioners – called acupuncturists – use acupuncture to treat a wide range of health conditions. It is often used to treat pain conditions such as headache, lower back pain and dental pain, but is also commonly used against conditions ranging from infertility to anxiety and asthma. To learn more, see common uses of acupuncture.
The availability of acupuncture on the NHS is limited (see box, left). Most acupuncture patients pay for private treatment.
Does it work?
Currently, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends acupuncture as a treatment option only for lower back pain. NICE makes this recommendation on the basis of scientific evidence. Read the NICE 2009 guidelines on low back pain (PDF, 980kb).
There is some evidence that acupuncture works for a small number of other conditions, including migraine and post-operative nausea. However, there is little or no scientific evidence that acupuncture works for many of the conditions for which it is often used. More scientific research is needed to establish whether acupuncture is effective against these and other conditions.
There is no scientific evidence for the existence of Qi or meridians. More research is needed before acupuncture’s method of action is fully understood.
For more information, see evidence for acupuncture.
Using acupuncture
If you choose to have acupuncture, make sure that your acupuncturist is fully qualified and practises the treatment under safe and hygienic conditions.
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