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Come to the point? Traditional Acupuncture vs Western Medical Acupuncture – Which is Best?

Acupuncture is a popular treatment and can be used to help a variety of health problems, including back pain, headaches, migraines, improve well-being and can help low mood.

Many people think that acupuncture is just about sticking needles in people. The reality is acupuncture encompasses a wide range of techniques which are based on a whole range of philosophies.

The Acupuncture Regulatory Working group in 2003 defined acupuncture as… “the insertion of a solid needle into any part of the human body for disease prevention, therapy or maintenance of health….”

However, the term acupuncture implies a coherent and uniform practice, but in reality not only is there a wide range of treatment techniques and assessment methods, but the framework which underpins the practice of acupuncture shows considerable variety.

In recent decades there has become two main divisions in the UK, Western Medical Acupuncture often practiced within a conventional medicine set up and also Traditional Acupuncture.

The Western medical acupuncture model tends to use its choice of acupuncture points which are often more prescriptive for localised problems, such as points used around the knee for knee pain. This type of acupuncture is based on scientific principles where there are known chemical and physiological changes which occur within both the nervous system and the hormonal system in order to reduce pain and promote healing. This model of acupuncture often uses derivatives of acupuncture such as laser acupuncture, trigger point injections or a specific western technique called intra-muscular stimulation which does not relate at all to Traditional Acupuncture.

In contrast Traditional Acupuncture has evolved as part of the Eastern traditional medicine system, and has evolved over the centuries, with a huge diversity of ideas and opinions. Essentially the Traditional Acupuncture approach holds the view that blockages in specific flows of energy through the body, or even deficiency of energy through the body can cause dis-ease. By inserting needs at certain points and using specific types of needling techniques this helps move the energy and encouraged the body to find a point of balance where health and well-being can be improved. Traditional acupuncture is composed of many competing models, diagnostic methods and many treatment interventions, examples of these are:

  • Five Element Theory

  • Auricular theory (ears)

  • Japanese Theory – there is huge competition between the Chinese V Japanese as to who first discovered acupuncture!

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine theory (TCM)

Traditional Acupuncture incorporates a complex range of components, diagnostically such as pulse taking, tongue observation etc and also a range of therapeutic interventions such as moxibustion (use of Chinese mug wort herb) which can be burnt in a variety of ways depending on the philosophy. This is often used to reduce stagnation of blood or energy in the body or to introduce heat into the system. Similarly, Cupping is a technique which creates a vacuum onto the tissue which can be effective to reduce tissue tension and reduce stagnation.

However, both Western Medical Acupuncture and Traditional Acupuncture are not mutually exclusive, often practitioners with amalgamate facets from each framework.

I am trained in both Western Medical Acupuncture and Traditional Acupuncture approaches. I find both to be useful and both have their place. Which one I choose will depend on the presentation of the person I am treating and also that person’s expectations. However, as a general rule of thumb the more chronic the condition the more traditional approach I tend to use, but there are no hard and fast rules as far as I’m concerned. So for example I used cupping this week on a young gentleman who had an Ilio-tibial band problem ie pain on the outside of his knee and thigh – a traditional technique but used in a very western medical approach, but later in the week I used my traditional skills as part of a treatment on someone who was very tired, stressed and generally low in energy.

But I don’t like needles?

We hear this frequently and that’s fine. Unlike the hollow needles used in GP surgeries and hospitals, which are much thicker and hollow, acupuncture needles are extremely thin, even as thin as 0.16mm thick, and therefore most people don't even feel them go in. Occasionally you may feel a warm, heavy sensation around the area, but this is not unpleasant.

Are there any side effects?

Most people are absolutely fine after acupuncture. Occasionally there may be mild side effects such as bruising, mild bleeding and short-term pain at the needle site can be experienced. Some people may feel dizzy or faint during or after treatment though this is extremely rare and the pain of your condition may temporarily feel worse after treatment, however your practitioner will advise you on coping with this.

Many of our practitioners here at the clinic have trained in one sort of acupuncture or another, so if you are interested, please get in touch.


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