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Exploding the myths around acupuncture

Recently, I found myself at a social event where I was introduced to someone I didn’t know. I’ve found, over the years, that for people who have never experienced it, acupuncture is a source of great curiosity.

The person I was speaking to works within a very large corporate operating in the oil and gas sector – so, with all due respect to myself and my profession, a career of arguably more immediate interest than my own.

Yet this woman was completely fascinated by the work I do – and, as I have found with a great many well-educated people, surprisingly ill-informed about the realities of acupuncture and its benefits.

I asked her if she’d ever considered having treatment.

“Oh, well, I suffer with backache quite a lot and so I’ve toyed with the idea of complementary health treatment in general, and acupuncture in particular … but, well, I’ve always decided against it.”

I asked her if she’d tried, or been referred for, any other complementary therapy in relation to her back problems. The answer was that, no, she hadn’t. And now it was my turn to be curious.

Here was a woman experiencing persistent and chronic back pain, someone for whom traditional clinical care wasn’t having the desired impact, and someone who was clearly in the sort of financial position that would allow her to explore other treatment options.

So, why hadn’t she tried something different. More importantly, for me, was the question of why she had decided not to at least explore the benefits that acupuncture might bring?

The next half an hour of conversation became a 30-minute session in which I gently debunked some common myths surrounding acupuncture.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I was quite surprised that some of these misconceptions still persist – especially in a society where Covid has prompted people to be far more open about the alternative (note the lower case ‘a’) solutions available to them.

And it occurred to me that if someone with as much worldly experience as the woman I was talking to still believed some of the myths, then there would be many other people labouring under the same misapprehensions.

So here, in no particular order, are the myths that deterred her (and perhaps you) from trying acupuncture – and the facts that may persuade you to open your mind to its possibilities.

Myth 1: Acupuncture is so old now. It hasn’t changed for centuries, so it can’t possibly be effective!

Well, the actual practise of acupuncture has changed a lot. We now benefit from some of the most advanced technology on the market. But that isn’t really what people are getting at here.

What they’re really doing is comparing acupuncture to treatments like, say, the medieval practice of leeching, an approach that has been long considered, in lay terms, to be redundant.*

In fact, it’s the very fact that the principles of acupuncture haven’t changed that is the greatest testament to this ancient Chinese medical practice. Put another way, it hasn’t changed because it works!

Almost everyone knows what acupuncture is, but in case you’re very new to it, it involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to promote health and alleviate various ailments. It does this by stimulating the body’s natural ability to heal.

Myth 2: Acupuncture is painful

This is one of the most pervasive myths about acupuncture, and the one that most commonly prevents people from going for treatment. In reality, the needles used in acupuncture are extremely thin and flexible, which makes the insertion process relatively painless.

Some people may feel a slight sensation or a tingling feeling, but it is typically not described as painful.

Myth 3: Acupuncture is only useful for pain relief.

While acupuncture is indeed effective for pain management and relief, its scope extends far beyond that.

Acupuncture is also used to address various health issues like stress, anxiety, digestive problems, allergies, insomnia, and even fertility issues. It is a holistic approach to wellness that targets the body’s overall balance and well-being.

Myth 4: Acupuncture is unscientific and not evidence-based.

Over the years, numerous scientific studies have investigated the effectiveness of acupuncture for different conditions.

While more research is still needed, many studies have shown promising results for various health concerns. Acupuncture’s effectiveness is supported by both anecdotal evidence and a growing body of scientific research.

Just by way of comparison, it may come as a surprise to learn that until its review of its own literature came to an end in 2016, the British Medical Journal defined the measure of efficacy of all conventional clinical treatments as follows:

Beneficial – 11%, Likely to be beneficial – 24%, Trade off between benefits and harms – 7%, Unlikely to be beneficial – 5%, Likely to be ineffective or harmful – 3%, Unknown effectiveness – 50%.

In plain language, what that means is that only 11% of all conventional medical treatments are considered likely to be effective.

At worst then, and only for some conditions, acupuncture can be said to be no more or less effective than 50% of the conventional clinical treatments that critics of acupuncture would be inclined to support. You can read more on this here.

Put another way, the fact a pharmaceutical product has been clinically tested does not, de facto, mean it is effective. Yet do we doubt the efficacy of the prescription our GP gives us? Probably not.

Myth 5: Acupuncture is a placebo effect.

It’s commonly accepted that all placebos have some degree of positive effect either on symptoms or psychological attitudes to health.

But we can go one step further with acupuncture, because research has demonstrated that acupuncture has measurable physiological effects on the body, such as stimulating the release of endorphins and promoting blood circulation.

The placebo effect alone cannot account for these physiological changes.

Myth 6 – Acupuncture is dangerous because of needle infections.

Licensed acupuncturists use sterile, disposable needles, which significantly reduces the risk of infections. Reputable practitioners adhere to strict hygiene and safety standards, ensuring the procedure is safe for patients.

Myth 7 – Acupuncture either works immediately or not at all.

While some people may experience immediate relief after an acupuncture session, the effects can be cumulative. Several treatments might be necessary to achieve the desired results, depending on the individual and the condition being treated.

While needles are a central part of acupuncture, acupuncturists also incorporate other elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine into their work – such as cupping, moxibustion (the burning of dried herbs), and acupressure to stimulate the body’s energy flow.

Remember, it’s essential to consult a qualified and licensed acupuncturist if you are interested in exploring acupuncture as a complementary therapy for any health condition. They can provide personalised advice and treatment based on your specific needs and medical history.

*(Actually, the principles of leeching still have medical validity and are still practised today – it’s just that we now tend to call this treatment  called hirudotherapy – and due to the risks of blood infection, leeches themselves are no longer involved!)



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