Ask an expert - general

235 questions

Q:  If I may I would like to ask also about the possible benefits of acupuncture on allergies. My poor wife,who is apparently suffering from candida (not yet formally diagnosed) is also allergic to a great number of more or less day-to-day foods,including dairy,wheat,shellfish,soya, celery etc-about 20 different items all told.

A:  There is a small amount of research on the use of acupuncture to treat allergies, but most of what we have been able to locate is about the sorts of allergies which can be easily tested, like an allergy to dust mites. The problem with food allergies from a research perspective is that there are so many confounding factors which make the selection of trial and control groups difficult that few researchers even try.

What we do find very commonly is that when the body is reacting strongly to one set of allergens, and we would class candida as something of this nature, the whole system tends to go on red alert, and people discover that they have become or are also allergic to a wide range of other things. We have often seen patients who have been tested with EAV machines, and they come back with immense lists of allergies and intolerances which leave them with only a couple of staples left to eat. We think that this is perhaps overstating the problem. Reducing the number of foods for which someone has intolerances will obviously reduce the burden on the immune system but finding the one(s) which is really the major factor will do a great deal more.

Not so simple as it sounds, though! We have come across two cases where patients were actually sensitive to electrical power circuits, and a rather strange case history published twenty years ago by a scientist reported that once his wife was effectively insulated from the house's power supply she sat down and ate a cheese and tomato sandwich which would in previous times have had an almost instant and debilitating effect.

However, when we are asked about allergies, our response from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective is that the over-reaction of the body's immune system is a sign that the overall balance has been disturbed. There are treatments which we can use which can affect the defensive energy (called 'wei qi') of the body directly, and we might use these if we felt that during an acute episode there was some kind of pathogen which we could remove or quell. The more common approach, though, would be to go back to basics and simply work hard to re-establish the overall balance. Chinese medicine was predicated on the simple basis that when a system was in balance, symptoms would resolve spontaneously, being themselves only indicators that the balance was out. When we have published PR stories on our website (which you can find if you go to our home page and under site search type allergies) most often this is the simple strategy which the practitioner has used.

Allergies and allergy testing belong to a field where desperate people are often relieved of large amounts of money for something which has no provenance or proposes strange solutions. In our view the tried and tested therapies with a long history of effective use - acupuncture, herbal medicine, homeopathy - in conjunction with some carefully controlled elimination diets can often bring things under sufficient control to make life more bearable and convenient.  

.Q:  Is it possible to have acupuncture for the help of getting my taste and smell back?

A:  This question comes up from time to time, and one of the answers we gave was:

Most of what people regard as 'taste' is in fact 'smell', and if someone has lost their sense of smell entirely the range of tastes which they can experience is very limited. There is a frequently cited case study from nearly a decade ago
which reports the successful treatment of one case, but in all honesty there are very few others, and no substantial evidence suggesting that this has been replicated by other practitioners. Most members have had patients for whom the loss of the sense of small. anosmia, has been a secondary complaint, but we have heard very few reports of great success.
It may be worth you while to visit a BAcC member local to you to ask their advice face to face. If you were to decide to have acupuncture treatment, or indeed any treatment from a complementary medicine practitioner, we would advise you to be very clear about outcomes and reviews of progress. Our experience is that people can rapidly run up considerable costs chasing solutions when there is nothing substantive to suggest the treatment is having any effect, and the responsible practitioner will always draw a clear line in the sand if they are not achieving changes which the patient can experience and which underpin continued treatment. 

Essentially we would not want to give you an unrealistic expectation about the outcome. We have not heard many reports of this condition being treated successfully, and there are very few case reports on the web which report success.

We have edited out some bits of the answer because the questioner had also problems with excessive mucus production, and we could not say without a face to face examination whether there may be some aspect of this which was the principal reason why the sense of smell had gone. It may well be that if you visit a BAcC member for advice they can see something in the energetic presentation and balance which similarly encourages them to believe that there may be a solution. There may also be something in the way in which your sense of smell and taste went which encourages then.

The bottom line, though, is that if you are fortunate enough to find that it works, you may be the exception rather than the rule.

Q:  I have had chronic pain in the testicle and area of repair following a mesh repair of an inguinal hernia 4 years ago.  9 weeks ago I had the mesh removed and a neurectomy of the illioinguinal nerve, which was supposed to sort the problem out but has not. Would acupuncture help and if so is there any particular type that would be best. Can you recommend anyone in the Leigh on Sea area who would be appropriate.

A: A great deal depends on what may be causing the pain. We are assuming that the neurectomy was selected after a very thorough neurological examination; it is not common practice to start cutting nerves unless there is a very good and clearly diagnosed reason. On the assumption that this nerve corresponded to the area in which you were and still are experiencing pain, then there may be a small chance that acupuncture treatment may be of benefit.

Acupuncture treatment does have a general pain-relieving effect which has been the object of a great deal of study over the years, as our factsheet on chronic pain shows:

The chemical markers for pain relief, the neurotransmitters, are easily measured to provide an objective marker of whether something is happening. The main question with treating at this kind of generic level is how much relief the treatment may give and how sustainable the relief is. In many cases this comes down, unfortunately, to a financial question: is the treatment affordable and worthwhile when the cost is set against the relief.

However, the understanding of the body as a system of energy in flow which underpins traditional Chinese medicine does afford other possibilities for consideration. Like any enclosed and self-contained system, if there is damage then where the flow is impaired pain will arise, either from a deficiency or excess of energy in the area, or through the stagnation in the flow. Using needles this flow can be reinstated, and the pain reduced or removed. Sometimes the very fact of surgical incision can create a blockage, as can the formation of scar tissue. This can sometimes have effects some distance away from the scar tissue itself. Treatment is often a mixture of local treatment and treatment some distance away, although we can reassure you immediately by saying that there are no acupuncture points on the testicle or scrotum! There are, however, points on the lower leg a which refer directly to this area, and these may come into play.

The best advice that we can give is to visit a BAcC member local to you for an informal assessment of what may be possible. Although we can be quite confident about the treatment of conditions which we often see it is far more difficult to offer opinions on unique presentations like yours. However, a skilled practitioner may well be able to make a few diagnostic soundings which can tell them how likely it will be to help your problem.   

Q:  I have had a cough for almost 18 years, following a bout of tonsilitis. It is a powerful, barking cough (I have suffered broken ribs on two occasions as a result of coughing).  I wondered whether acupuncture might be able to help?

We are sorry to hear about your experience; that is a very long time to be troubled by something for which no solution has been found and which has the capacity to do physical damage.

We are going to have to assume that you have had all the tests known to conventional medicine. There are a number of acute and then acute-on-chronic conditions which can produce a cough of lasting severity, but they all offer treatment options and you haven't mentioned being on any specific form of treatment. We're also going to assume that you still have your tonsils; it would not have come as a surprise to hear that this had been offered as a solution.

From a Chinese medicine perspective, the body, mind and emotions are all a manifestation of an energy called 'qi', pronounced 'chee', of which everything consists and whose orderly flow in defined channels maintains our health and well-being. The diagnostic systems of Chinese medicine are all geared to understanding where and how this flow has been disrupted. This is a subtle and skilled art; problems do not always lie where the symptoms appear, such is the inter-connectedness of the system, and treatment aimed at palliating a symptom without reference to the whole picture are less likely to be successful. After viral infections it is not uncommon for their to be long-term deficiencies, and in some cases straightforward blockages where the system can no longer cope and instead, for example, allows the accumulation of fluids in the lungs which trigger the coughing reflex. Sometimes the problem can be more subtle still; people have patterns of behaviour for such a long time the whole system adjusts around them.

It is very difficult to offer a diagnosis at this level of remove and we are not going to try. We do think, that it would be well worth your while visiting a BAcC member local to you for a brief face to face assessment of what might be going on. If the practitioner can see an obvious cause in Chinese medicine terms it may well be worth having a short course of treatment to see if there is any benefit. Even if there is no obvious cause it may still be worthwhile; the roots of Chinese medicine lay in keeping the patient well rather than getting them better, and treatment was aimed at balancing the system as a whole in the simple but effective belief that a system in balance does not generate symptoms.

There are a number of postural interventions, like cranial osteopathy, which might also offer some benefit, and we are sure that if you see an acupuncturist who thinks this may be a good option, then they will probably be able to make a good referral on.

Q:  My  wife gets severe  recurring neck pain. A friend suggested acupuncture. She takes Warfarin;  is this form of treatment suitable?

A: We have been asked questions about warfarin before, and our answer has always been:

There is no reason not to have acupuncture when you are taking warfarin. We publish a Guide to Safe Practice for our members which provides detailed guidance on issues like this, and on the treatment of people on anti-coagulant medication we wrote:

Patients on anti-coagulant medication

You must take great care when needling patients who are taking anti-coagulant drugs such as Warfarin. Only very superficial needling with fine needles (0.20mm) is recommended.

The risk appears small but internal bleeding leading to compartment syndrome can have extremely serious consequences. There is one report in the medical literature of a case of compartment bleeding following acupuncture in a patient taking anti-coagulants (see link to article at the end of this section).

Warfarin prevents the body from metabolising vitamin K. Vitamin K controls the formation of a number of coagulation factors in the
liver and is an essential substance for blood clotting. Vitamin K is present in most of the foods that are considered to be blood-forming according to Chinese medicine such as green leafy vegetables. This is important to consider if you are giving dietary advice to patients on Warfarin since these foods can lessen the desired effect of the drug.

Patients are put on Warfarin or other anti-coagulants for a number of different reasons. These may be purely preventive if, for example, the patient suffers from atrial fibrillation or has mechanical heart valves, or because of recent surgery, stroke, heart attack or thrombosis. The dosage of the medication depends on the desired amount of anti-coagulation for that particular condition.

Every patient on Warfarin has to undergo tests on a regular basis to check how long it takes for their blood to clot. The frequency
of these tests depends on the dosage of their medication and their condition. It is good practice to encourage your patient to have more frequent tests while they are receiving a course of acupuncture as the treatment can positively influence their blood values and may require their Warfarin dosage to be

Ask your patient for their INR (international normalised ratio). The INR is a ratio established by measuring the prothrombin time (PT),
which is the length of time it takes for the patient's blood to clot, and then by comparing this value to an average. In a healthy person the INR is about 1.0. Patients on Warfarin tend to have an INR somewhere between 2.0 and 3.0 or even higher, depending on the desired amount of anti-coagulation. A higher INR signifies a stronger effect of anti-coagulation.

The main risk associated with acupuncture is internal bleeding. Depending on the depth of needling and the underlying structures
involved this may be insignificant, but there is a chance that it can result in compartment syndrome. Although the risk is small this condition can have serious consequences and often requires surgery.

Needling should only be done superficially and with fine needles. The higher the INR, the greater the risk of bleeding. Patients with an INR of 3.5 (sometimes therapeutically necessary in the treatment of valvular disease) or higher should be treated with greater care.

It is also advisable not to use guasha and cupping on patients on anti-coagulants since these techniques tend to draw blood to the
upper layers of the skin and can cause severe and prolonged bruising to larger areas of the body.

Further information and research articles can be found on the internet. Here are a few examples:

Our members will always take these factors into account when treating, especially when they are dealing with a problem which might
require slightly more vigorous needling. The majority of UK trained practitioners, however, use very fine needles and very gentle techniques, and we have had very few reported cases over the years of bruising or bleeding after treatment in people taking warfarin or other anti-coagulant medication.

As you can see, we have taken this seriously because we find that many patients can easily forget the impact of taking anti-coagulants and on occasion even forget to tell us that they are taking them when we undertake the initial diagnosis.

As far as the neck pain is concerned, we publish a fact sheet on this

but cautious as this is, you will find that many practitioners often report quite dramatic changes when using acupuncture for neck pain. Not every case is treatable, but we find that most people respond to a degree, and the question is not really 'will it work?' so much as 'how well will it work and how sustainable are the results?'. The only caution we would utter is that our
experience is that after the first session and occasionally the second the movement is often slightly more restricted, gradually relaxing over the following week, and then progressing as far as it can. This avoids unnecessary anxiety if a patient knows what is likely to happen.

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