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Ask an expert - general

206 questions

Q: I am an oncology pain specialist nurse and I am currently doing a Masters in nursing. My question relates to 'self Acupuncture for chronic Cancer pain'. I appear to be struggling for published data on this topic so wanted to ask if there are any trials in this area or who I could ask?

A:To be honest there isn't a great deal of information about self-needling, although there have been some interesting articles over the years. A relatively recent one http://aim.bmj.com/content/33/3/210 discusses the use of self needling in research trials for breast cancer treatment. You will need to find someone in your section with access to research databases to download this, but it looks like interesting reading.

We came across a hospital In Truro many years ago where patients were being trained in the use of a specific point (Nei Guan) to reduce post-chemotherapy nausea, for which there is considerable positive research evidence, and they did have some very well laid out and clear instructions.

However, it would be fair to say that we are still very much on the side of the view expressed by Val Hopwood in the article on self-needling to be found in this journal https://www.aacp.org.uk/journal/download/4 where she says that the risks outweigh the benefits.

We have not tended to encourage people to needle themselves. There are two main reasons. First, acupuncture involves piercing the skin and safely disposing of needles, and a professional practitioner spends a considerable time learning the skills and knowledge necessary to remove any risk of infection or cross-infection from the process. Our main complaint about very short training courses is that while they may train people in useful adjunctive skills they cannot hope to ensure that the person taking them is sufficiently well trained in safe needle practice and all the cautions that go with being a professional acupuncturist.

Second, although the treatment of symptoms has its place in Chinese medicine, symptoms are regarded as only a part of the picture, and are usually indicators of imbalances within the system which need attention. The risk is that using acupuncture in a first aid way, the underlying pattern is deteriorating, but the alarm bell which the symptom represents keeps getting turned off. This is less likely in a controlled setting like continuing treatment under supervision. However, we have to be realistic; for most patients in continuing care this can mean quarterly or half yearly check-ups, and a great deal could happen in between without necessarily being picked up or seen as being masked by a treatment intended for another purpose.

That said, you can find some data by chasing the references in these two papers. There are also a number of recent studies which are well worth looking at. Jacqueline Filshie is one of the UK's experts in acupuncture and cancer treatment, and her paper

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16430125 is as always enlightening and solidly grounded in experience. There is also a useful paper here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23436910 for a study in which Jacqueline also took part.

We hope that these give you enough to start with and wish you well with your studies.

Q: Can GCT be treated with acupuncture?

A:There are a number of acronyms in medicine which have multiple meanings, and we are assuming with this one that you mean giant cell tumour. If it is something different do let us know.

If it is giant cell there is not a great deal that we could imagine to be gained from acupuncture treatment save relief from the pain of the secondary effects. We have checked the databases and found no evidence of formal research into acupuncture treatment of GCT, although there are a few websites which promote the idea of using Chinese herbal medicine to ameliorate the symptoms.

From a Chinese medicine perspective there are a number of points which have a direct impact on the bones of the body, and we have seen some very interesting results when it comes to fracture healing. However, although there is some research into problems like osteoporosis, there is nothing we can find which suggests that acupuncture can address the problem you have. The ancient Chinese would not have benefited from X-rays and scans, and would have diagnosed the problems according to their normal protocols for swelling of the joints and pains in the muscles and tendons. On this basis, there may be some hope that the worst of the pains can be kept at bay, but not much chance that the condition itself will be reversed or removed.

In cases like yours, though, so much depends on the unique nature of the person's energy, and making general pronouncements will never be as good as the opinion of someone who has seen the problems you have in context, i.e. along with all other aspects of your health and functions. This would enable you to get a much better idea of what is possible than we can offer at this distance. Find a local practitioner who is properly trained and qualified and ask what they think. If they offer cure or full remission be very cautious indeed. This may be more than anyone could sensibly promise.

Q: A couple of time I have read on your website that acupuncture treatments are almost good for nothing and that there is no evidence that it can successfully treat conditions as Trigeminal Neuralgia and many others. Are you against acupuncture? Your website seems to advocate against this science.

A: This is a very good question, for which we think there are some very good and, we hope, informative, answers.

The first and most important point to make is that since the Advertising Standards Authority's reach was extended to cover websites and internet marketing there are much stricter conditions about what people can claim in their advertising and marketing materials. In healthcare in particular any claims to cure, treat or help in the treatment of a problem now have to be backed up by evidence that this really is the case. By'evidence' the ASA has adopted a standard with which nearly every complementary therapy has disagreed and with which they have taken issue, the randomised double blind control trial. This really only works well for drug testing, not for therapies where the nature of the intervention develops as treatment progresses.

The BAcC, along with many other bodies, has been engaged in discussion with the ASA for the last five years about the unsuitability of this as a standard, and also about the choice of experts by the ASA to review evidence. The bottom line, though, according to this criterion is that only about four or five conditions meet the required standard, and a very uninteresting group they make too unless you happen to be looking for acupuncture treatment for dental pain. The vast majority of studies are not RCTs, nor would we want them to be; the acupuncture is often formulaic and restricted, and about as far removed from day to day practice as one can imagine.

However, these are the rules, and so when we are asked about named conditions we have to be very clear that the evidence from this perspective is not conclusive. We often use terms like 'encouraging' or 'promising' when the evidence is short of conclusive but fairly robust,  but as a regulatory body which has to require its members to comply with the law we cannot ourselves bend or break the rules. If there is no conclusive evidence in the ASA's terms then we cannot claim there is, even when we know that we have treated many cases of a problem successfully.

As far as named conditions themselves are concerned we have also been backed into a corner, partly because of the nature of our own marketing over the years. As we are at pains to say in nearly every response traditional acupuncture treats the person, not the condition. Although you will find an increasing number of books and internet articles about 'acupuncture for headaches' or 'acupuncture for stomach disorders' this is not how we view our work. To some extent it is possible to treat named conditions in themselves but from a traditional acupuncture perspective it is not as satisfying or ultimately as likely to succeed long term as treating the person, i.e. tailoring the treatment to the individual and their unique imbalances. In the circumstances it is with great caution that we would say 'acupuncture treats x or y or z';. There are going to be many prospective patients for whom this will not be the case because what seems like a simple problems sits atop a pattern of overall disorder which might take months or even years to sort out.

At the same time, as practitioners we have seen many thousands of patients over the years, and we have a fairly clear idea of the conditions which, whatever the state of an individual's health, do not seem to be too tractable to treatment. Some, like severe tinnitus, can endure through many courses of treatment of all kinds, as the magazines of the tinnitus support groups attest. It would be unhelpful and misleading for us to claim to treat such problems on the basis that acupuncture treats the person, not the condition, when we know that it is one of a number of problems which do not seem to respond well to any treatment.

We take the view that as a mature profession we should be honest in assessing those problems which are more likely to be helped and those which aren't, and letting the prospective patient know this. We remember earlier times when the fact that acupuncture treated the person more than the disease led to some patients getting the very wrong end of the stick; treating a patient with cancer is not the same as treating cancer, but people will hear what they want to hear unless someone is very careful with their choice of words.

As a final point, we would probably not want to lay claim to the word 'science' for what we do. There are all sorts of definitions of scientificity, and under many of them we could probably make a case for traditional acupuncture as a science. We also, though, recognise that there is an art to what we do, skills based on experience and observation which are unique to each practitioner and which provide an infinite number of perspectives on groups of patients. We had this brought home most clearly when we were discussing National Professional Standards with doctors. For them a diagnosis was an accumulating paper or computer file which could travel from doctor to doctor without any change or modification. For us, diagnosis was an active process which depended on the individual practitioner, and evolved over time. Until we ironed out this major semantic difference there was great confusion.

We hope that this explains why we take the approach we do, and why our answers and our website in general do not claim as much as we would like or, in fact, could do based on our clinical
experience. Our strategy has always been, however, to encourage people to visit our members to find out what acupuncture can do for them as unique individuals rather than offering generic answers to individual problems. Judging by the feedback we receive this approach seems to have gone down well with a large proportion of the 2500 people to whom we have replied through this facility.

This is a very good question, for which we think there are some very good and, we hope, informative, answers.

The first and most important point to make is that since the Advertising Standards Authority's reach was extended to cover websites and internet marketing there are much stricter conditions about what people can claim in their advertising and marketing materials. In healthcare in particular any claims to cure, treat or help in the treatment of a problem now have to be backed up by evidence that this really is the case. By'evidence' the ASA has adopted a standard with which nearly every complementary therapy has disagreed and with which they have taken issue, the randomised double blind control trial. This really only works well for drug testing, not for therapies where the nature of the intervention develops as treatment progresses.

The BAcC, along with many other bodies, has been engaged in discussion with the ASA for the last five years about the unsuitability of this as a standard, and also about the choice of experts by the ASA to review evidence. The bottom line, though, according to this criterion is that only about four or five conditions meet the required standard, and a very uninteresting group they make too unless you happen to be looking for acupuncture treatment for dental pain. The vast majority of studies are not RCTs, nor would we want them to be; the acupuncture is often formulaic and restricted, and about as far removed from day to day practice as one can imagine.

However, these are the rules, and so when we are asked about named conditions we have to be very clear that the evidence from this perspective is not conclusive. We often use terms like 'encouraging' or 'promising' when the evidence is short of conclusive but fairly robust,  but as a regulatory body which has to require its members to comply with the law we cannot ourselves bend or break the rules. If there is no conclusive evidence in the ASA's terms then we cannot claim there is, even when we know that we have treated many cases of a problem successfully.

As far as named conditions themselves are concerned we have also been backed into a corner, partly because of the nature of our own marketing over the years. As we are at pains to say in nearly every response traditional acupuncture treats the person, not the condition. Although you will find an increasing number of books and internet articles about 'acupuncture for headaches' or 'acupuncture for stomach disorders' this is not how we view our work. To some extent it is possible to treat named conditions in themselves but from a traditional acupuncture perspective it is not as satisfying or ultimately as likely to succeed long term as treating the person, i.e. tailoring the treatment to the individual and their unique imbalances. In the circumstances it is with great caution that we would say 'acupuncture treats x or y or z';. There are going to be many prospective patients for whom this will not be the case because what seems like a simple problems sits atop a pattern of overall disorder which might take months or even years to sort out.

At the same time, as practitioners we have seen many thousands of patients over the years, and we have a fairly clear idea of the conditions which, whatever the state of an individual's health, do not seem to be too tractable to treatment. Some, like severe tinnitus, can endure through many courses of treatment of all kinds, as the magazines of the tinnitus support groups attest. It would be unhelpful and misleading for us to claim to treat such problems on the basis that acupuncture treats the person, not the condition, when we know that it is one of a number of problems which do not seem to respond well to any treatment. 

We take the view that as a mature profession we should be honest in assessing those problems which are more likely to be helped and those which aren't, and letting the prospective patient know this. We remember earlier times when the fact that acupuncture treated the person more than the disease led to some patients getting the very wrong end of the stick; treating a patient with cancer is not the same as treating cancer, but people will hear what they want to hear unless someone is very careful with their choice of words.

As a final point, we would probably not want to lay claim to the word 'science' for what we do. There are all sorts of definitions of scientificity, and under many of them we could probably make a case for traditional acupuncture as a science. We also, though, recognise that there is an art to what we do, skills based on experience and observation which are unique to each practitioner and which provide an infinite number of perspectives on groups of patients. We had this brought home most clearly when we were discussing National Professional Standards with doctors. For them a diagnosis was an accumulating paper or computer file which could travel from doctor to doctor without any change or modification. For us, diagnosis was an active process which depended on the individual practitioner, and evolved over time. Until we ironed out this major semantic difference there was great confusion.

We hope that this explains why we take the approach we do, and why our answers and our website in general do not claim as much as we would like or, in fact, could do based on our clinical
experience. Our strategy has always been, however, to encourage people to visit our members to find out what acupuncture can do for them as unique individuals rather than offering generic answers to individual problems. Judging by the feedback we receive this approach seems to have gone down well with a large proportion of the 2500 people to whom we have replied through this facility.

Q: I saw an osteopath today for acupuncture treatment of my lower back. I have 2 damaged discs at L4-5. As one needle went in it was fairly painful like a nerve had been touched. She said she was near one of my damaged discs. When she started moving a different needle the pain was unbelievable like a intense burning sensation. She removed the needle straight away and massaged the area until the pain subsided. Everything I have read seems to suggest I shouldn't have felt this pain. I am due to go back for another session next week but I'm really concerned now.

A: We are very sorry to hear of your experience. Acupuncture treatment can occasionally be a little uncomfortable with a dull aching sensation, and on very rare occasions it can produce a very sharp reaction if a nerve is hit. Much rarer, though, are the occasions when it generates extreme sensations.

However, the fact that the pain subsided after a little gentle massage is quite a positive sign. If there had been serious damage or if the practitioner had hit a nerve there is less chance that things would have settled down so quickly. Indeed, where someone has had some very long term conditions there can occasionally be a quite violent release with some very strong after effects, so it could possibly be that this has been a very positive treatment. You will soon find out from changes which occur after the treatment. We tend to advise people that the next 24-48 hours might be a little up and down, but after that if there is going to be improvement it will swiftly become noticeable.

Although we have great respect for colleagues in the other professions who use acupuncture alongside their own modalities, it is no secret that we have been highly critical of the proliferation of very short courses adding acupuncture to another existing modality. The doctors and physios, both of whom have special interest groups protecting the public interest, have published standards for what they do and well-organised training. Many osteopaths and chiropractors, and even some podiatrists, however, are increasingly taking these short courses. We believe that it is not possible to cram both the techniques and theory into such a course at the same time as ensuring that appropriate safety standards and hygienic practice are being passed on.

This is not intended to cast aspersions on your osteopath, who may very well have substantial training and experience, and we have no doubt that what you have experienced is probably a one-off. However, as a general rule we prefer people to see practitioners whose primary focus is acupuncture rather than practitioners offering acupuncture as an adjunct within their existing skill set. Knowing what to do is important, but knowing what to do when things go wrong is as, if not more, important. For this it is essential that someone has had an in-depth training. We would not countenance our members having a go at a few osteopathic manipulations, and we're pretty sure the osteopathic associations wouldn't be that happy either.

By all means go ahead with the treatment next week, and rest assured that the chances are that it will be largely uneventful. If there is any repetition of the extreme pain or sensation, then remember that any healthcare professional can only work with your consent. If you say 'stop' then they have no choice but to so do. But we doubt it will come to that!

Q: I am a medical acupuncturist in Australia. Just wondering if you have any evidence for the use of acupuncture in Polymyalgia Rheumatica?

A: As you can imagine we have been asked about this condition by prospective patients on a number of occasions, and the most recent answer we gave was:

There are surprisingly few studies into the effects of acupuncture treatment on polymyalgia, and this does limit what we can say from a conventional medical perspective about the treatment of the condition.

However, we suspect that this is a great deal to do with the diffuse ways in which the condition presents. In our experience the definition is imprecise, and we have seen patients with identical presentations diagnosed very differently. From a Chinese medicine perspective, though, this doesn't really matter. For us the description of the patient's symptoms is seen against an entirely different theoretical framework. This involves an understanding of the body as a flow of energy whose rhythms, flow and balance can affect someone's health. When pain arises it is usually a sign of blockage in the system, or excesses and deficiencies which we can correct with the use of needles. The real skill and art of the practitioner lies in identifying the true source of the problem. Such is the complex web of inter-relationships within the body a symptom will often not be the same as the cause of the problem. Finding out where the root cause is and addressing it is what differentiates a traditional practitioner from someone using simple all-purpose formula points. If the root is not addressed then the problem will come back. This also explains why a dozen people with the same symptom can be treated in a dozen different ways, with treating being individualised to each case. The best advice that we can give is that you visit a BAcC member local to you so they can give you a brief face to face assessment of what could be possible. A skilled practitioner should be able to give you a rough idea quite quickly of how much change they think they might achieve and over what period of time. Most of our colleagues are happy to give up a few minutes without charge to enable the patient to make an informed choice, and will also be likely to offer good alternatives if they think these will address your problems better.

This explains the situation very clearly from a Chinese medicine perspective, but for someone using acupuncture within a conventional medical framework this probably wouldn't help. We have shared a very helpful and informative relationship with our medical acupuncture colleagues in the UK, and they have often found that trigger point acupuncture has been helpful, as has segmental acupuncture to a degree. The theories behind these approaches can overlap usefully with the main presenting symptoms of PMR, but naturally the overall diagnosis overlaps with dozens of other local conditions, so rather than being points for PMR these would be better seen as 'area acupuncture.'

The one thing which medical acupuncture lacks, and we mean no disrespect by saying so, is a systemic approach to ill health in the body. Many of the patients who present to us as traditional acupuncturists have problems which clearly point to weaknesses in the overall functions of some of the body's systems, and we often find that unless these are addressed as well then treatment may only have a short term effect.

If asked by a patient what the evidence for the success of acupuncture for PMR is, though, we would have to be honest and say that not only does it not meet the gold standard of western research, the RCT, but often fails to meet any reasonable standard. We believe that this is partly to do with the difficulties of assembling a meaningful cohort for a trial, the diagnosis not always being precise, but partly to do with the fact that treating it as a purely physical condition may not be dealing with the underlying causes, some of which are often mental and emotional.

We are sure that your non-medical colleagues in Australia would be happy to discuss this whole area of treatment with you.

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