Some 2.3 million acupuncture treatments are carried out each year in the UK, making it one of the most popular complementary therapies. Ahead of Acupuncture Awareness Week (March 3-10), Abi Jackson channels her inner pin cushion to find out what it’s all about.
As an acupuncture virgin, I’d assumed it would simply involve lying down, having some needles stuck into my skin and - hopefully - feeling a bit better afterwards. There was also a small part of me that thought I’d feel no effects at all.
I was wrong.
Yes, there was lying down, and of course, there were needles, but the whole process was far more involved than I’d imagined, and the outcomes were very surprising.
My GP had suggested I try acupuncture about a year ago, to help with pain management for back problems. I didn’t follow it up, partly because I wasn’t convinced it would be worth the money.
But as Acupuncture Awareness Week approached, I was surprised to learn it’s actually one of the most practiced complementary therapies and patients report high success rates - there’s also a wealth of studies backing this up (which you can read more about online, www.introducingacupuncture.co.uk).
It’s used across a wide range of ailments; people have it to help them quit smoking, combat insomnia, reduce stress and anxiety, to support recovery from injury or surgery, to relieve pain and symptoms associated with problems like osteoarthritis and auto-immune diseases.
In its traditional form, acupuncture stems from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the origins of which date back around 2,500 years. Its ancient principles have held strong, though, and these days, it’s often used alongside modern/Western medicine. In fact, in the UK, the number of people giving it a go has risen by 15% in the last decade.
My own session was with Maureen Cromey, who has 26 years’ experience and is a member of the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC membership assures practitioners are fully qualified and have completed a minimum three years’ study and meet safety standards and regulations). She trained in China and spent time at a hospital where TCM was routinely used alongside modern treatments. Impressed by what she saw, she’s now convinced that a combination of the two is the key to optimum health.
The session begins with a consultation. Cromey asks all about my general health and lifestyle; any illnesses, problem areas, how I sleep, how I feel, my diet and exercise regime, family histories... She looks at my tongue and takes my pulse, making notes all the while, before finally asking if there’s anything specific I’d like the treatment to focus on.
This is routine for first-time sessions.
“It’s a full consultation, looking at the current state of health and lifestyle and talking to the person about what’s happened in their life, where they are and what’s going on,” Cromey explains.
Everybody’s constitution, she adds, is different. And this, alongside how it evolves over time with our lifestyles, events, injuries and illnesses we encounter, combine to create an overall map of our health and wellbeing.
“Unlike in ancient Greek medicine, in Chinese medicine the mind and body were never separated, so the emotions and physicality are all part of the same picture,” Cromey says.
This overall picture plays a key part in the treatment. “In TCM, harmony within the body is about a good energy flow and calmness, and any pain or discomfort is considered a blockage in that energy,” Cromey explains. “So if you focus on a bad knee for example, without considering whether a person’s anxious or not sleeping correctly for instance, you could achieve a change in the knee for a short time but the full problem behind it’s still there.
“If everything’s fine and in harmony, then this might not be needed,” she adds. “But imagine you’re planting some flowers; you have to prepare the soil first.”
Another helpful analogy is explaining TCM as roots and branches: “The symptoms are the branches, but to treat the branches effectively, we need to look at all of the roots.”
This is why people often feel ‘generally better’ after acupuncture. Even if they pursued treatment to help with a stubborn knee or eczema, they might experience additional benefits like feeling energised, calmer and sleeping better.
It’s also the reasoning behind why my treatment - I ask for shoulder pain to be targeted - begins with some general, harmonising work.
Cromey inserts needles (27 in total) into various acupuncture points all over my body; hands, ears, ankles, legs. A diagram on the wall reveals there are hundreds of these points, some clustered close together, and each relates to different energy flows.
Cromey chooses relevant points based on the map she’s created from the consultation. It looks incredibly complicated; it’s taken Cromey years of study and experience to master her skill, and she says she’s continuously learning.
Acupuncture is nothing like having an injection. The needles are extremely fine so it’s not painful when they’re inserted into the skin. Once the needles are in however, it’s normal to feel a range of sensations. Some of mine bring on tingling and others throbbing. This is a sign of blockages being opened up, apparently.