Other referral information
Referrals are only accepted by e-referral from GPs or by tertiary referral by letter from authorised healthcare professionals.
UCLH service name
NHS e-referral specialty
Acupuncture for chronic pain and headache
|Pain management||pain management|
Acupuncture uses the insertion of solid needles into the body to improve health. The needles are very fine, much thinner than needles used to give injections or take blood samples. At RLHIM, we use sterile, disposable needles that are never reused.
Acupuncture stimulates the nerves in skin and muscle which can produce different effects. We know that it can help your body to release natural painkillers.
Acupuncture is recommended by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for people with the following conditions:
- Chronic pain (pain that lasts for more than three months) for people over 16 years old, including:
- Chronic widespread pain or fibromyalgia
- Chronic musculoskeletal pain (muscle and joint pain, such as chronic neck pain)
- Chronic facial pain (such as temporomandibular joint disorder)
- Chronic organ pain (such as chronic abdominal or pelvic pain)
We can’t offer acupuncture if you have only chronic low back pain, osteoarthritis, or neuropathic (nerve) pain, unless the pain or its impact is considered by your doctor to be out of proportion to the underlying condition.
- Headache for people over 12 years old, of two types:
- Migraine (when the recommended preventative medications, propranolol and topiramate, do not work or cause unacceptable side effects)
- Chronic tension-type headache
All treatments and procedures have risks and we will discuss the risks of acupuncture treatment with you before the treatment starts.
Risks that can happen during the treatment:
- Some people may feel a little faint. In very rare cases they may actually faint, especially the first time they have acupuncture.
- About one in a hundred people may feel pain during the treatment. Most people may feel a little discomfort as the needle is inserted; some people feel nothing at all.
Risks that can happen after the treatment:
- About three in a hundred people have minor bruising or bleeding after the treatment.
- Fewer than three in a hundred people 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 people can feel sleepy or light-headed after treatment. If you do, you should not drive or operate machinery until you feel able to.
Rare but serious side effects:
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.
You should get medical help if you suffer breathlessness or chest pain within 48 hours of your acupuncture treatment session.
Acupuncture is a drug-free treatment. It may ease pain, or improve the symptoms of your condition. Some people can reduce the dose of painkillers or other medication they are taking. Speak to your GP of hospital consultant before changing the dose of any medication you take.
Compared to many treatments such as some medications 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 at least six sessions to give it a “fair trial”. However, if you choose not to have acupuncture treatment, please notify your practitioner.
We want to involve you in all the decisions about your care and treatment. Your acupuncturist will explain all the risks, benefits and alternatives. If you are unsure about any aspect of your proposed treatment, please discuss it with your acupuncturist.
Your first assessment is often offered over the telephone and may last up to an hour. At this appointment, the acupuncturist will ask you about your medical history and assess if acupuncture is suitable for you. Please bring a list of your current medications (or update the list on the MyCare portal if signed up to this). You will be asked to complete some questionnaires about your health condition.
- Please arrive on time for your appointments. If you arrive late, it may affect the number of needles and duration of your treatment. If you arrive more than 15 minutes late, we may not be able to treat you.
- Each treatment visit is 30-40 minutes long.
- If possible, ask a friend or family member to go home with you after your first appointment, in case the treatment makes you feel sleepy or light-headed.
- Please wear loose clothing so that the acupuncturist can easily access the areas of your body into which the needles will be placed.
- You should take meals and medications as normal before your acupuncture treatment.
You will be offered an initial assessment appointment, up to 10 acupuncture sessions, and (for headache) a final appointment one month after you have completed the treatment. At the last appointment the acupuncturist will assess how effective acupuncture was and discharge you . A letter summarising this will be sent to the referring doctor and your GP as well as a copy to yourself.
During the treatment, fine needles are inserted through the skin and left in position. The needles are left for a few minutes up to 30 minutes. The acupuncturist may twirl or move the needles to increase the effect. The number of needles varies but may be only two or three.
You must tell your acupuncturist 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 may not mean that you cannot have acupuncture.
To reduce waiting times, we often offer acupuncture in a group setting of up to six people of any gender. There are curtains are around each cubicle so that you can receive your treatment in private. You will be told if you will have treatment in a group setting.
It may take several acupuncture treatments before you notice any improvement. We recommend that you continue to attend the appointments for 6 sessions even if you do not see any effect at first.
If you are unable to attend your appointment please let us know at least 48 hours beforehand (or as soon as possible) so we can offer your appointment to someone else. If you do not attend your appointment without telling us we may refer you back to your GP. On completion of your treatment programme you will be discharged from the service.
The British Medical Acupuncture Society supports health professionals who practice Western medical acupuncture.
Their 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
RLHIM cannot accept responsibility for information provided by other organisations.
RLHIM is a teaching hospital and from time to time, as part of their training, other healthcare professionals may observe outpatient clinics. We will always ask for your permission for students to observe your treatment. Students do not have to be present if you would prefer them not to be.
If you are unable to attend your appointment, please let us know at least 48 hours beforehand so we can offer your appointment to someone else. If you do not attend your appointment without telling us we may refer you back to your GP. Following your treatment, you will be referred to your GP.
If your appointment is more than 24 hours away, please change or cancel it by using the online form below or calling us on 020 3456 7890.
If your appointment is within the next 24 hrs please call us on 020 3456 7890.
If you have any non-urgent queries regarding your appointment or our services, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will respond to you within 72 hours.