I suffer from paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. I still do highly competitive athletics (orienteering) even though I'm 71 (athletic heart diagnosis). Occasional episodes over many years have not really compromised my competing 2-3 times per week, howev

Your question raises a number of important considerations about the use of acupuncture. We assume that you are referring to this 2012 study


which concludes that the use of Neiguan (PC-6) has a very positive effect in reducing AF episodes.

We addressed some of these issues in a reply at around the time when the study was first published:

There are some early indications that acupuncture may have an anti-arrhythmic effect in patients with atrial fibrillation. A study published earlier this year


concluded that there appeared to be benefits and that further large scale trials would be valuable to test the hypothesis more carefully.

However, it is only fair to say that needling a single point such as Neiguan repeatedly is not a fair representation of what a traditional acupuncturist does in practice. Although there is considerable overlap between eastern and western systems the arrhythmia typical of AF could be classified in several different ways within Chinese medicine, and the practitioner would be guided by evidence other than simply a reading of the rate of the pulse. That in turn would mean that ten people with AF might receive ten different treatments. To that extent, it is not that straightforward to extrapolate from research studies like this and conclude that 'acupuncture works'. 

The skill of the practitioner lies in making sense of the symptom of AF within an entirely different theoretical framework, and understanding each presentation in each individual patient as unique. The best advice we can give any prospective patient is to contact a BAcC member local to them to seek a short face to face consultation at which they can be given a better assessment of whether acupuncture might benefit them.

From the traditional acupuncture perspective using a single point in this way based on a single research study is quite a distance from the traditional paradigm in which the point sits. We are aware that there is a movement even within Chinese medicine to start to use this sort of formula treatment, and a very widely read paper published nearly twenty years ago, 'Pearls and String in Classical Acupuncture' has influenced a number of practitioners in the West, and is becoming slightly more common practice in China itself under the title 'best of both' - western differentiation and acupoint treatment.

Our view is that this is rather like Orwell's 'two legs good, four legs better' insofar as formula treatment may well work well for many people but probably won't work as well as a treatment which is designed for the specific imbalances of each patient. Since all patients are unique and different it would be seen as poor practice from a traditional perspective to use the same points over and over again. One of our old teachers used to refer to the use of the point as 'asking the system a question' and paying heed to the answer in following up.  'You wouldn't ask someone the same question ten times, would you?, he argued. While this may be a little extreme the general sense that acupuncture treatment is dynamic and evolutionary is critical to its nature.

We are sure that if you do want to pursue a specific approach like using the same point over and over again there are many practitioners of western medical acupuncture who would be happy to oblige. A full list can be found at the website of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, with whom, it has to be said, we have very cordial dealings. However, it seems to us that if you haven't had an episode for three months on the back of four or five traditional acupuncture sessions it might well be worth carrying on with the existing treatment plan and only considering the more formulaic approach if the traditional approach ceases to work as well.

It is a rather interesting footnote to this discussion that in Chinese medicine the specialist was usually looked down on as an inferior practitioner because of the narrow range of what they could treat whereas the generalist was held in great esteem precisely because they could treat anyone in whatever was the most appropriate manner.

There are a great many studies of this kind across the entire range of named conditions, and the main reason why they generate conclusions like this is because the 'gold standard' of research in the West, the randomised double blind control trial, demands that there are as few variables as possible. This means that trials and studies regularly have to use a single point or point combination to meet the research criteria. We have argued for years that this is an inappropriate way to test a dynamic system, but in Western medicine 'evidence based' is the new hallmark of acceptability. This is a cause of much concern for the very many conventional modalities which don't fit easily into trials intended for testing pharmaceuticals where neither patient nor practitioner knows what is being offered/prescribed as a guarantee of eliminating unconscious bias. 

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