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Ask an expert - general

148 questions

 We suppose the short and truthful answer to your question is 'no' if by it you mean 'can acupuncture accelerate a natural process?'. The rate at which young people enter adolescence can vary dramatically, and 'late starters' often accelerate very rapidly to catch up with their peers and sometimes overtake them. One of the basic premises of traditional acupuncture is that it encourages best function in the body, mind and spirit, and to this extent works within the potential which each person has by making everything function as well as it can. If the body has its own game plan for an adolescent, acupuncture treatment cannot change that by speeding things up.

That said, there can come a point where someone's growth may start to attract clinical attention, and where clinicians in orthodox medicine will start to commission hormone tests to see what is happening. Once this is the case, and a pathological pattern has been identified, there may be some scope for using acupuncture to help to normalise matters. The research evidence for the treatment of hormonal problems is a little sketchy, but slow growth and development in later adolescence has been examined by Chinese physicians for over 2000 years, and there are a number of ways of understanding and making sense of this within the terminology and conceptual framework of Chinese medicine.

However, our advice to any twelve year old who presented at our clinic would be to have patience and wait for changes which in the vast majority of cases will occur within the 'normal' band for teenage development. Only when someone reaches the end of this range at about 15 or 16 would most medical practitioners start to consider that things may not be as they should.

However, we wouldn't want to deter someone from trying acupuncture before that! In ancient times, acupuncture treatment was primarily aimed at keeping people well, not getting them better after they had become ill. This, said the ancient Chinese, was like digging a well when you were already thirsty or forging a spear after the battle had started. In a world dominated by disease labels and getting rid of problems treatment for healthy living and encouraging better function often get set aside from the way we present what we do, and we believe that we could perhaps be doing more to get this message across.  


Q:  This question is not strictly related to acupuncture, but i couldn't find answers anywhere else so I'm hoping an expert here could help me. Last week I accidentally punctured the palm of my hand with a large thumb tack by putting my weight on the desk when standing,  not realising the was an upturned pin under where I put my hand. It was a shock to say the least but the pain subsided quickly after I pulled the pin out. There was very little blood but my ring finger did twitch and my forearm felt tingly. Now a week on I am still feeling uncomfortable sensations in my ring finger, like a tightness and slight pain. The pin went in about two inches below the base of my ring finger. I should mention also that about a year ago I accidentally sliced open my hand about 1 inch below my ring finger and pinky. At the time I had it glued with butterfly stitches. There was no remaining pain once the slight swelling etc had gone down.

A: We're sorry to hear what has happened to you.

As you say, it isn't an acupuncture-related injury, but if we did have a patient report of similar response to an acupuncture needle, we would probably say that the reason for the continuing pain is most likely to be from deep bruising which has caused a clot to form and which is pressing on the nerve, replicating the pains you felt when the accident first happened. If this is the case, then it will clear within a fortnight or so with a gradual reduction in the unpleasant sensations.

It is possible that there has been some damage to the nerve itself, or any one of several nerves which traverse the area, and the outcome here may be a little more difficult to predict. We have certainly come across one case where a direct hit on a nerve generated unpleasant sensations for a number of months. However, this would be very rare, and if the symptoms continue with the same level of intensity thrughout the next fortnight, or even become a bit worse, then you will need to see your GP to get a referral to a neurologist. There may be no harm in seeing your GP early anyway; waiting list medicine sometimes demands that people try to get themselves on the treadmill sooner rather than later. If your GP has on inspection any reason to suspect nerve damage, then an early referral is a good idea.

On the balance of probabilities, though, the symptoms should begin to subside during this week.

As an aside, there are a number of powerful acupuncture points on the palm of the hand, and you may have given yourself an unwitting treatment. Two of the major channels travel where you report symptoms, but the chances that they would resonate for this long are very small. Not the nicest way to have acupuncture treatment either!

Q:   My uncle has just completed treatment for bowel cancer and he's suffering really badly with burning hot feet. I asked a family friend, who is an acupuncturist, if she thought treatment would help. She seemed to know the symptoms I'd described and called it 'something' syndrome (I can't remember what the name of it was and now I'm not able to get back in touch with her to clarify). Is this something that you are familiar with and could you offer any advice - including if there are any specialists in this area in the north west of England?

A:  While we admire our colleague's diagnostic prowess (!), we'd have to say that the symptom has to be seen in the wider context of the patient's overall patterns of energy. While there may be one or two syndromes where this symptom is central to the diagnosis, it is always possible that it is a secondary reaction to a deeper underlying pattern which could only really be identified by looking very carefully at all aspects of someone's functioning.

We don't know exactly what treatment your uncle has had, although very often it involves surgery and chemotherapy, and occasionally radiotherapy, but we do know that it usually has significant effects on the whole system, and that includes body, mind and emotions. It is really important to be able to assess first hand what effects it has had. This is why in Chinese medicine the same symptom can be treated in dozens of different ways. Even in conventional medicine the great Canadian physician William Osler famously said 'it is more important to find out what patient has the disease than what disease the patient has.'

The best course of action for your uncle is to visit a BAcC member local to him to see if they can give him a brief face to face assessment of whether in their view he would benefit from treatment. The great majority are willing to do this without charge in order to give the patient as much information as possible before they commit to treatment. There are no specialists in this field, but this is not because of the field but because of the nature of Chinese medicine which treats the person, not the named condition. In reality, though, so common is cancer and its treatment in modern times it would be unusual to find a practitioner who has not had experience of treating someone who is recovering after cancer treatment.

Q: There is absolutely no doubt that this has become a very popular and recent extension to traditional acupuncture practice; many BAcC members undertake postgraduate training in the techniques, some of which are not a part of mainstream acupuncture training, and openly advertise this as an extension of their work. 'Rejuvenation' is not an acceptable term any longer; you would need much more rigorous evidence to meet the current ASA standards for advertisers. Most people describe their work as 'cosmetic acupuncture' or simply 'facial acupuncture.'

A:  Popularity brings challenges, and this field has also become something of a lucrative sideline within the beauty business. This has meant the entry into the business of people who have trained only in this aspect of the work, and we have two major reservations about this. First is that no-one can be properly and effectively trained in the safe and hygienic practice of acupuncture in the course of a weekend training programme. From our perspective it matters not whether the practitioner uses ten needles a year or ten thousand needles a year, the standards remain the same. Our concern, as always, is that an amateur in what is a professional field does something wrong, and we can guarantee that the headline will say 'acupuncturist does.....'. No point in us quibbling about levels of training, the damage will have been done. When you think that this technique may be used by people in the public eye, the possibilities for a PR disaster are considerable.

More importantly, though, there is no separate field of 'facial acupuncture'. There are simply the techniques of traditional acupuncture applied to a specific area, and these techniques will only be effective to the extent that the practitioner takes into account the systemic problems against which the facial problems occur. The most irritating thing from our perspective is that acupuncture used without an understanding of the wider system will most often not work very well, and we believe that a porr experience, where acupuncture treatment seems not to work, will turn someone away from a system which properly applied could do a great deal not just for the face but for the rest of the person too.

Our advice is that if you are looking for someone to provide this form of treatment, be sure to go to someone who also uses traditional acupuncture as a main profession. That is your best chance, in our view, of optimising your investment in time and money. We would also advise you to shop around. In the view of this expert, this has become something of a 'cash cow' for some practitioners who price themselves according to the beauty market in which the treatment is offered. Whilst we would recognise the value of postgraduate training and experience, it is after only only traditional acupuncture applied in a specific area, and the gap between someone's ordinary charges and this form of treatment should not be too great.

Q: I have had 4 strokes and I have diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I have been falling a lot lately, tripping over my own feet. This happens a lot more when I am tired. My neurologist says that my falling is multi-factorial - the diabetes he feels has caused some neuropathy in my feet and the strokes have messed up my center for balance in my brain. I am at my wits end trying to avoid falling. Do you think that acupuncture could help my condition(s)?

A:  There is certainly no likelihood of any hard from trying acupuncture treatment; it remains one of the safest medical interventions, with very few adverse effects, most of which are transient.

We have been asked about diabetic neuropathy on a number of occasions. Our factsheet on neuropathic pain tends to address neuralgias more than neuropathy itself, and our answer to our last enquirer, slightly more specific than your question, was:

Q: My husband has diabetic lumbosacral radiculoplexus neuropathy. Please advise if he should find an acupuncturist specializing in this condition. .We live in west wales and would be grateful if you could recommend a practitioner.

A:The first thing we have to say is that you are unlikely to find an acupuncturist who specialises in treating this condition, but that is in the nature of Chinese medicine which is inherently generalist. In fact, in ancient China the specialist was regarded with disdain because they were restricted to treating a small number of conditions, whereas the generalist could treat all. Chinese medicine treats the person, not the condition from which they suffer. It would not be unusual for twenty patients with the same presenting conventional named condition, say migraine, to be treated in twenty entirely different ways.

Symptoms, what the patient experiences, are the same whatever system of medicine one practises, however, and it is the sense which a practitioner can make of them which determines whether treatment is possible. The normal symptoms of this form of diabetic neuropathy - pain, weakness in the limbs, muscle wasting and so on - would be seen by a Chinese medicine practitioner in the context of the Chinese medicine system which is premised on an understanding of the body as a flow of energy, called 'qi'. How qi flows. The balance and rhythms of this flow determine whether someone is healthy or not, and unsurprisingly where the flow is blocked or out of balance, pain and loss of function will result.

This is a rather long-winded introduction to saying that the Chinese medicine practitioner will be less interested in the name given to the condition than in how it presents, and will try to make sense of that both as a local disturbance and as a manifestation of the balance of the whole system. This can mean on occasion that acupuncture treatment can achieve changes where people thought change was impossible, but this has more to do with the fact that the causal relationships on which conventional medicine relies can be misinterpreted. Nearly everyone over the age of 60 has some degeneration of the lower spine visible on X-ray but that doesn't mean that every backache is caused by it.

In the case of diabetic lumbosacral radiculoplexus neuropathy, however, the diagnosis tends to be more precise and what we can say is that there is a limited amount of evidence for the use of acupuncture in the treatment of neuropathy and considerably more evidence for the treatment of chronic pain wtih acupuncture to suggest that acupuncture treatment may be able to take the edge off your husband's pain. Working at this remove, though, and without being able to see exactly how it manifests we are somewhat limited in what we can say. The best advice we can give is that you go to see a BAcC member local to you for an informal face to face assessment of whether acupuncture treatment may be of benefit. A skilled practitioner should very quickly be able to tell you based on what they can observe whether they think that treatment applied locally may help, or indeed whether balancing the whole system may help the body's own mechanism's to function better and take charge of its own recovery.

As far as finding a practitioner is concerned, there is a 'find a practitioner' feature on our home page which should be able to provide you with a list of names of working in or near your postcode area. We always recommend using postcodes; the search engines are very specific and if you name a county you may find that someone works just over a county border who is far closer than the practitioners operating in your own town or county.

We think there is enough overlap here to answer some of your question, but we would probably place greater emphasis for you on the fact that acupuncture treats the person, not the disease itself. Given that you have a number of quite serious health problems, it is sometimes more advantageous coming at them from a different perspective to avoid taking on symptom after symptom, one at a time. We see many patients taking bucketloads of medicine as a consequence of this approach, and while we are not at all opposed to the use of medication, we are always concerned that this overloads the body with the complex interactions between the medicines and generally addes a few more symptoms.

The traditional acupuncture practitioner will try to make sense of the patterns which have developed in such a way that they can apply the minimum amount of treatment to the most needy areas to encourage the person's own healing process. While it is possible to use acupuncture treatment in a more targeted way, we believe that taking a holistic approach offers the best way not just to help the patient to get better but to stay well. In ancient times the traditional doctor was paid to keep someone well, not to get someone better after they had become ill. This was, said the Chinese, like 'digging a well when you are already thirsty, or forging a spear after the battle had started.'

The best advice, as we said in our earlier reply, is to visit a BAcC member local to you and seek a brief face to face assessment of whether acupuncture treatment may be of benefit to you.

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