Acupuncture 

What is acupuncture?

Fine needles are inserted through the skin and briefly left in position. Sometimes the practitioner may move the needles a little or apply low voltage electrical current across pairs of needles to increase the effect. The number of needles used during a treatment varies but may be only one or two.

Acupuncture needles are very fine, much thinner than needles used to give injections or take blood samples.

Sterile, disposable needles are used and needles are never re-used.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture stimulates the nerves in skin and muscle, and can produce different effects. We know that it can help your body release natural painkillers in parts of your spinal cord and brain. This modifies the way your brain receives information about pain.

What are the risks from acupuncture?

All treatments and procedures have risks and we will discuss the risks of acupuncture treatment with you before the treatment starts.

During the treatment:

  • Some people may feel faint, or actually faint, especially the first time they receive acupuncture.
  • About one in a hundred people may feel pain during the treatment. Most people simply feel a little discomfort as the needle is inserted; some people feel nothing at all.

After the treatment:

  • About three in a hundred people experience some minor bruising or bleeding after the treatment.
  • Less than three people in a hundred will find their symptoms get worse after their first treatment. This is often a good sign, but you should always tell your acupuncturist about this if it happens to you.
  • Some patients can feel sleepy or light-headed after treatment. You should not drive or operate machinery after your appointment if you are affected.

Rare but serious:
Acupuncture is very low risk if practiced safely. But there is a risk that about one in 200,000 treatments could lead to a serious adverse event, such as a punctured lung (pneumothorax) – this risk only occurs when needling over the ribcage. You should seek medical help if you suffer breathlessness or chest pain within 48 hours of your acupuncture treatment session.

What alternatives are available?

Acupuncture is a drug-free treatment, which may ease pain or improve symptoms of your condition so much that you can reduce reliance on painkillers or other medication.

Compared to many treatments such as strong drugs or surgery, acupuncture is very safe. It can work alongside your existing treatment or on its own. If your doctor refers you for acupuncture treatment we advise you to complete the course to obtain the maximum benefit. However, if you choose not to have acupuncture treatment, or find it does not suit you, other treatments may be offered, depending on your choice and what is appropriate, or you may continue with your existing treatment.

Asking for your consent

We want to involve you in all the decisions about your care and treatment and your clinician will explain all the risks, benefits and alternatives. If you are unsure about any aspect of your proposed treatment, please ask. We will be happy to answer any questions you may have. If you decide to go ahead with treatment your practitioner may ask you to sign a consent form or may obtain your permission verbally. This confirms that you agree to have the treatment and understand what it involves.

How should I prepare for acupuncture treatment?

Please arrive on time for your appointment as your treatment may require needles to be left in place for up to 30 minutes; late arrival may affect the length of your treatment.
  • Allow one hour for your first session. Sessions after that will probably be shorter.
  • It is wise to arrange for an escort to accompany you home after your first appointment in case the treatment makes you feel sleepy or light-headed.
  • You may need to undress for your treatment to be carried out, so wear clothing that is easy to take off and put on.
  • You should take meals and medicine as normal before your acupuncture treatment.

What is involved in acupuncture treatment?

Every patient will have an initial assessment, followed by a course of treatment suitable for their condition. Treatment is usually provided in six consecutive appointments but may be less if the condition responds quickly.

The treatment itself involves fine needles being inserted through the skin and left in position, sometimes briefly, sometimes for up to 30 minutes. The practitioner may twirl or move the needle to increase the effect. The number of needles varies but may be only two or three.

You must tell your acupuncture practitioner if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have ever experienced a fit, faint or funny turn
  • have a pacemaker or any other electrical implant
  • have damaged heart valves
  • have a bleeding disorder
  • if you have any joint replacements or implants
  • are taking anti-coagulant medication (such as Warfarin to thin your blood)
  • have any other particular risk of infection This may affect the treatment you receive but will not necessarily mean that you cannot be treated with acupuncture.

Group acupuncture treatment

To offer treatment to as many patients as possible sometimes we treat patients in a group setting. This means that you will be treated in a room with up to four other patients of either sex (this is the way it has always been done in China). You will be told if you are to receive group treatment.

Curtains are available around each cubicle so you can receive your treatment in private. You will be treated seated or lying on a couch.

Gowns are provided to change into if necessary. For neck and shoulder treatment, it is usually necessary to undress to the waist (ladies will not usually need to remove their bra).

For treatment of the lower back, trousers or skirt may need to be removed. Please do not wear tights, stockings, or clothing that cannot be easily removed.

We run Group Acupuncture clinics for the short-term relief of the following conditions:

  • Chronic Low Back and Neck Pain
  • Knee Osteoarthritis Pain
  • Migraine and Tension–Type Headache
  • Temporomandibular (Jaw Joint) Disorders (TMD)

Traditional Chinese Medical Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This is a system of healing which has been practised in China and other Eastern countries for thousands of years.

Although often used as a means of pain relief, it can treat people with other illnesses. The focus is on improving the overall well-being of the patient, rather than the isolated treatment of specific symptoms.

You will be seen individually and assessed by an acupuncturist trained in TCM. They will use traditional Chinese techniques including pulse, tongue and abdominal diagnosis. They will also ask you about your medical history and lifestyle.

The TCM trained acupuncturist can stimulate the body’s own healing response and help to restore its natural balance.

The principal aim of acupuncture in treating the whole person is to recover equilibrium between physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of the individual. Therefore it can help to relax, improve mood and sleep, relieve tension and improve your sense of well-being.

Your individual needs will be assessed and a treatment plan will be discussed with you during your initial consultation.

The treatment may include the use of the following:

  • The use of fine acupuncture needles
  • Moxibustion (burning of the herb Mugwort close to the surface of the skin)
  • Cupping therapy (to create local suction on the skin)
  • Acupressure (pressure applied to acu-points to stimulate energy flow)
  • Electro-acupuncture (a low voltage current is passed between 2 needles)

What should I expect after acupuncture treatment?

You may feel sleepy, light-headed, or experience some aching in the areas in which you have been needled. You may experience some bruising or slight bleeding. This is quite normal. Sometimes the symptoms of your condition may feel worse after acupuncture treatment. However, if this does not settle down within 72 hours you may wish to seek advice from your GP.

As noted in the 'What are the risks from acupuncture?' section, if you become breathless or experience unusual chest pain you should seek urgent medical help.

It may take several acupuncture treatments before you notice any significant improvement. We recommend you continue to attend for appointments even if you do not see any effect at first.

Where can I get more information?

The British Medical Acupuncture Society supports health professionals who practice Western medical acupuncture.
 
The website provides information for patients and health professionals: www.medical-acupuncture.co.uk
 
The British Acupuncture Council promotes traditional Chinese acupuncture and provides information for patients and practitioners: www.acupuncture.org.uk
 
UCLH cannot accept responsibility for information provided by other organisations.

 Contact details

Acupuncture
Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine
3rd Floor
60 Great Ormond Street
London, WC1N 3HR

Patient enquiries
Telephone: 020 3448 2000

GP enquiries
Telephone: 020 3448 2000
Fax: 020 3448 2004
Email: rlhimpatients@uclh.nhs.uk (not for referrals)

Service manager - Loretta Chinwokwu
Email: rlhimpatients@uclh.nhs.uk (not for referrals)

 Patient leaflets