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Can acupuncture help people who suffer from panic attacks?

A:  A great deal depends on the precise definition of 'panic attack' which you use. It's the same as with people suffering from 'anxiety'; as a disease label it is far too imprecise because it tells you very little about what they actually experience.

Certainly from a western or conventional medical perspective, the lack of precision in the definition is a factor which has made for very little research in this area. There are no significant studies of which we are aware which would allow us to make any claim, however much qualified, about whether acupuncture may help. On the other hand, it is our experience that many people with panic attacks do benefit from acupuncture treatment, and we need to explain a little about how Chinese medicine works to understand this.

The symptoms which someone experiences remain the same whatever system of medicine one uses. The Chinese medicine system, however, is based on an entirely different understanding of the physiology of the body, and sees the whole system as a flow of energy, called 'qi', whose balance, rhythm and flow determine someone's overall state of health. The Organs, always capitalised when we talk about them in this system, all have unique functions which are much wider than their western equivalents, and the skill of the practitioner lies in being able to work from seeing the symptoms in this context and to make sense of where the flow of energy has been compromised. There are a number of diagnostic signs which are independent of symptoms which allow the practitioner to hone in on what needs to be treated. It is quite possible that two people with the same symptoms could be offered two entirely different treatments.

What you may need to do to get a better sense of whether your panic attacks are amenable to treatment is to visit a local BAcC member and see if they can offer you a brief face to face assessment in which they can see whether the specific symptoms which you experience give them a sense that your problem might be helped. The chances are that they will say yes; although each person is unique and different there are often patterns which are most associated with the main features of panic attacks and some fairly standard treatments - after all, with a 2500 year history of treatment Chinese medicine has been dealing with this sort of problem for a very long time.

The key thing is to set measurable outcomes. These will help you, if you decide to have treatment, to assess whether it is having an effect. We often encourage people to keep diaries because it is easy not to notice how much, or how little, progress there has been.

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