Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical technique for relieving pain, curing disease, and improving general health. It was devised before 2500 BC in China and by the late 20th century was used in many other areas of the world. Acupuncture consists of the insertion of one or several small metal needles into the skin and underlying tissues at precise points on the body as a treatment for various disorders and for pain relief.

How Does It Work

Acupuncture grew out of ancient Chinese philosophy of the yin and the yang. The yin, the female principle, is passive and dark and is represented by the earth; the yang, the male principle, is active and light and is represented by the heavens. The forces of yin and yang are thought to act in the human body as they do throughout the natural universe as a whole. Disease or physical disharmony is caused by an imbalance or dominance of one of these two forces in the body, and the goal of Chinese medicine is to bring the yin and the yang back into balance with each other, thus restoring health. Acupuncture is only one element of traditional Chinese medicine, which also includes herbs, accupressure, exercise and diet.

An imbalance of yin and yang is thought to obstruct the vital life force, or the ch’i, in the body. The fundamental energy of the ch'i flows through 12 meridians, or  pathways, in the body, each in turn associated with a major organ (liver, kidney, etc.) or body function. Acupuncture aims to affect the distribution of yin and yang in these channels so that the ch'i can flow freely and harmoniously. Disruption on a meridian can create illness at other points along it; for example, a disorder of the stomach meridian could be manifested as pain in the gums.

Conditions That Respond To Acupuncture

Digestive disorders
High blood pressure
Joint swelling
Musculo-skeletal problems
Pain relief
Women’s health

If undertaking any therapy, always check its suitability for a specific condition.


The actual practice of acupuncture consists of inserting needles into any of hundreds of points located over the 12 basic meridians and over a number of specialised meridians. The typical insertion is 3 to 10 mm (0.1 to 0.4 inch) in depth; in some procedures insertions may be up to almost 25 cm (10 inches). Once inserted, a needle may be twisted, twirled, or connected to a low-voltage alternating current. The practitioner often inserts needles at a considerable distance from the point on which they are to act; for example, a needle inserted into the pad of the thumb is used to produce analgesia in the abdomen. Similarly, successive points on a specific meridian may affect widely different areas or conditions.

Other acupuncture techniques include moxibustion in which the herb moxa is burnt to create heat to stimulate the acupoints. In cupping, glass cups may be placed over the points in order to draw blood towards them. The practitioner can also gain information about the patient from studying the skin before and after this treatment. Electro-acupuncture was developed in China in the 1950s. A low-intensity pulsing electric current is applied to the needles to stimulate the acupoints and can reach a number of acupoints simultaneously. Laser acupuncture directs a fine, low-energy laser beam on to the acupoint - particularly useful for patients with an aversion to needles.

Acupuncture does seem to be effective in relieving pain and is routinely used in China as an anaesthetic during surgery. This may be due to the needles stimulating the body's production of natural opiates (painkilling chemicals) such as endorphins or enkephalins or because the minor stimulation of acupuncture selectively acts on impulse transmission to the central nervous system, thus closing certain neurological "gates" and blocking the transmission of pain impulses from other parts of the body. Chinese belief that acupuncture can actually cure disease has yet to be substantiated by Western medical researchers. However, a body of scientific evidence exists to support acupuncture to treat certain conditions. In 1988 a study at Queen's University, Belfast, confirmed that acupuncture of a point just above the wrist could relieve and even eliminate nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy. Another study published in 1989 concluded that the same point could relieve nausea following anaesthetics and chemotherapy. Other studies have shown positive results with alcoholism, post-surgical pain, neck pain and lower back pain.

A growing number of GPs now practice Western "medical" acupuncture, usually to relieve pain, although opinion on this is still divided. Many remain sceptical of the idea of chi' and meridians.

Always see a qualified practitioner. Acupuncture is an invasive therapy and therefore not without risk. Ensure needles used are sterilised or preferably that new disposable needles are used each time. Practitioners should always be told if the patient is pregnant - certain points must not be stimulated except during labour - or if they are HIV positive or have any sexually transmitted disease. Immediately before or after a session, avoid alcohol, large meals, hot baths or showers, or strenuous exercise (including sex) as these may counteract its effect.


British Acupuncture Council

63 Jeddo Road


W12 9HQ

Tel: 020 8735 0400

Website: http//:www.acupuncture.org.uk

British Medical Acupuncture Society

BMAS Northwich

BMAS House, 3 Winnington Court

Northwich, Cheshire


Tel: 01606 786782

Website: http://www.medical-acupuncture.co.uk/Default.aspx?tabid=40 


- The Complete Book of Acupuncture, Stephen Thomas Chang.
- Acupuncture (Alternative Health Series), Michael Nightingale.
- Acupuncture: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask, Gary F. Fleishman, Charles Stein.
- Acupoint Pocket Reference, Bob Flaws (Editor), Honora L. Wolfe.
- Acupunture: How it Works, How it Cures, Peter Firebrace, Sandra Hill.

« Back