Acupuncture is a branch of traditional medicine that has been practised in China and the far east for thousands of years. It has been developed, tested, researched and refined to give a detailed understanding of the body's energetic balance. Without the benefit of modern scientific equipment, the first acupuncturists discovered many now familiar aspects of biomedical science, such as the impact of emotional stress on the body. Traditional acupuncture has steadily grown in popularity in the UK since the 1970s.
A growing body of evidence-based clinical research is discovering how the body responds to acupuncture and its benefits for a wide range of common health conditions. A lot of people have acupuncture to relieve specific aches and pains, such as osteoarthritis of the knee, TMJ, headaches and low back pain, or for common health problems like an overactive bladder. Other people choose acupuncture when they can feel their bodily functions are out of balance, but they have no obvious diagnosis. And many have regular treatments because they find it so beneficial and relaxing.
Acupuncture points are located at precise places along interconnected pathways that map the whole body, including the head, trunk and limbs. The most commonly used acupuncture points are on the lower arms and legs.
Moxa is often used in conjunction with acupuncture to enhance the effect of the treatment. The dried herb, Moxa, is used like incense to gently and safely warm the body, relax muscles and supplement qi.
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Two main groups of health professionals employ acupuncture techniques in their clinical work. The main group are professional traditional acupuncturists who have normally completed a 3,500 hour, degree level training in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation.
The training includes the study of conventional clinical sciences as well as formal instruction in an authentic holistic tradition of a medical practice that has been established in China over the last 2,500 years. This is the style of acupuncture recognised by many governments which have legal licensing of its practice, such as those of China, Japan, Australia and the US. Traditional acupuncture is practiced by over 1 million acupuncturists worldwide. The other group consists of conventional medical practitioners such as doctors, physiotherapists and nurses who also use needling methods as an adjunct to their professional practice. This style of acupuncture, often called dry needling, has also become known as Western Medical Acupuncture.
Both styles of practice are governed by their own professional bodies. The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) is the leading self-regulatory body for the practice of traditional acupuncture in the UK. It was formed in 1995 from five precursor bodies, the oldest of which was established in the early 60s. It now has over 3000 members. The first and foremost aim of the council is to protect and safeguard the public interest by maintaining high standards of education, ethics, discipline and safe practice amongst its members. BAcC-registered acupuncturists are trained in relevant aspects of Western medicine including anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and pathology. This enables the properly trained and qualified professional acupuncturist to recognise when it is in the patient's best interest to be referred on for other specialist care.
Training standards in traditional acupuncture at most of the UK University and College courses are assessed and guaranteed by the British Acupuncture Accreditation Board. Details of these courses and the accreditation process can be found at http://www.baab.co.uk/study-acupuncture/accredited-courses.html
Registered practitioners in conventional medicine, mostly doctors and physiotherapists, are overseen by the British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS) which was founded in 1980 to encourage the use of dry needling acupuncture techniques, and by the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP) established as a special interest group within the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP). Doctors and physios are eligible to join these bodies on completion of accredited programmes, but these are postgraduate courses of much shorter duration than traditional acupuncture training. The acupuncture or dry needling taught in these courses is seen very much as a limited technique within the wider scope of practice of the professionals who use it.
What actually is it about traditional acupuncture which makes it entirely different from what conventional medical professionals do? 'Traditional' means that the practitioner is trained to use an approach to diagnosis and treatment that has evolved over the past few thousand years in China, Japan and other countries of East Asia. It is an authentic medical tradition which explains how each person's symptoms and signs can be interpreted to establish a diagnosis of the underlying imbalances in their overall patterns of health and well-being. Each and every piece of information is relevant to building up this picture, and that can include changes seen in the complexion, in body shape and movement, changes in the tongue and information gained from palpation of the pulse and the body as a whole. This is a very heuristic and patient-centered approach that leads to a formal diagnosis in the technical terms of traditional Chinese medicine.
Once the practitioner has diagnosed the nature and cause of the imbalance a treatment plan will be devised which will be unique and specific to the patient. The treatment is then carried out by inserting ultra fine sterile disposable needles into selected acupuncture points on the body. Traditionally-trained acupuncturists may also use a heat treatment (moxabustion), cupping therapy or other forms of physical stimulation.
Whilst there is still a great deal of scope for more studies to be done, over 10,000 clinical trials into acupuncture have already been published and a great deal is known about the way that it works.
The British Acupuncture Council has produced a series of Fact Sheets, published on its website, (http://www.acupuncture.org.uk/category/a-to-z-of-conditions/a-to-z-of-conditions.html) on the effectiveness of acupuncture in addressing a number of conditions, and these all include an extensive discussion of the evidence available. Each year 2.3 million traditional acupuncture treatments are carried out in the UK, making it one of the most popular complementary therapies. The National Institute for Health Care Excellence, NICE, in 2009, based on the evidence available, recommended the use of acupuncture as a treatment option for lower back pain and in 2012 for migraines and tension type headaches.
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