What happens in a session of acupuncture or herbal medicine?
The first session typically lasts an hour,which includes a discussion of why the patient has come for treatment, how long they've had the symptoms, when they are worse or better and any other problems they may have. The acupuncturist will then ask about other aspects of their physical life and their general emotional state, including stresses in their life.
We then take their pulse and look at their tongue,an important part of the diagnostic process. From this, we make a diagnosis in terms of Chinese medicine, taking into account what the patient needs treating that day and what the underlying patterns are.
The patient then takes off any clothing that is necessary, although in practice, we mostly needle the arms, legs, tummy and back. They lie on the bed and we put the needles in quickly. This normally only takes a few minutes. They then relax on the treatment bed with the needles in for 20 minutes.
If they are coming for herbal medicine alone, the diagnosis will still follow the same pattern, but the patient will then wait while the practitioner writes out a prescription, which will usually be sent directly to the patient, with instructions on how to take it.
What does it feel like to be needled and how will I feel after a treatment?
Most people find acupuncture very relaxing. At the first visit, some people are anxious about the needles, but worries tend to disappear after the first needle has been inserted. Patients often describe the needle sensation as a tingling, warm or cold sensation, or sometimes a dull ache. This is one of the signs that the body's Qi, or vital energy, has been stimulated by the needles.
After treatment, you are likely to feel relaxed and calm. Patients generally go out feeling better than when they came in, although they may sometimes feel a bit sleepy for a short while. It is worth bearing this in mind if you plan to drive or use any other machinery shortly afterwards.
Is acupuncture safe?
According to research (Acupunct Med 2001;MacPherson et al; 19:93-102 doi:10.1136/aim.19.2.93), acupuncture is a very safe and gentle therapy. Minor bleeding or bruising may occur in a small number of people. As a member of the British Acupuncture Council, your acupuncturist is bound by strict codes of safe practice, as well as ethical and professional standards of conduct and hygiene.
I’m scared of needles – can I still have treatment?
Yes. Acupuncture needles are very much finer than the needles used for injections and blood tests. When needles are inserted, you do occasionally feel a prick but you may not feel anything. If you do, the sensation is often described as a ‘tingling’ or a ‘heaviness’ or ‘shooting’ called deqi. This is a necessary part of the treatment and helps to make it more effective. In China, patients often call their acupuncturist back if they don’t get deqi in a needle – they like a stronger sensation than we do here. Any sensation you do get is momentary and part of the necessary deqi. After a few seconds, you should not feel anything at all and you should be able to just lie back, relax and enjoy the treatment.
Are Chinese herbs safe?
Adverse reactions to Chinese herbs are extremely rare and are negligible when compared to those commonly produced by pharmaceutical drugs. Taking Chinese herbs is safe providing your practitioner is properly trained and is a member of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM), and that you follow the instructions given to you by your herbalist. The RCHM uses only approved suppliers which meet the required standards of sourcing and production. This ensures that the herbs are pesticide and heavy-metal free, and that they do not use any rare or animal products.
Do I need to prepare the herbs?
We usually prescribe herbs in powdered form. They are easy to prepare – you will only need to put them in a cup, mix them with a little cold water and then some boiling water and drink. Herbal powders are taken twice a day. If you find the powders difficult to take, we can have them made into easy-to-take capsules.
Should I still take my prescribed medication while I'm having a course of acupuncture or herbs?
Yes, you should continue taking all medications prescribed by your doctor. The acupuncture treatment may enable you to reduce or even stop taking some types of medication, such as painkillers, but you should always consult your doctor regarding any change of prescription. Never stop taking prescribed medication without professional guidance.
I have private medical insurance - will it cover the cost of my treatment?
That depends upon your insurance company. As the demand for complementary medicine increases, more private health insurance companies are beginning to offer cover for traditional acupuncture and herbal medicine. We do have an up to date list of private health insurers who cover complementary medicine but it may not be comprehensive. You should check your individual policy details or contact your insurance provider to ask if they would cover acupuncture or herbal medicine treatment.
How many sessions will I need?
That depends upon your individual condition. At first your practitioner will normally want to see you once a week. You may start to feel benefit after the first or second treatment although long-standing and chronic conditions usually need more time to improve. Once your condition starts to stabilise you may need treatments only every few weeks. Traditional acupuncture is also effective used preventively and many people like to go for a ‘maintenance’ treatment every couple of months even if they do not suffer from any specific condition.
What should I do before a treatment?
Try not to have a large meal within an hour of your appointment as the process of digestion will alter the pattern of your pulse, and you may need to lie on your stomach. Do not drink alcohol before your treatment as this will disrupt the dynamic of the Qi or vital energy. Before the treatment, you should also avoid food or drink that colours your tongue such as coffee or strong tea. It is a good idea to wear loose-fitting clothes so that the acupuncture points, especially those on your lower limbs, are easily accessible.
What is the difference between traditional and medical acupuncture?
Acupuncture is sometimes offered by healthcare professionals such as GPs, physiotherapists, osteopaths, midwives and nurses, as well as by traditional acupuncturists. Medical acupuncture used by western medicine professionals takes the practical needling skill and tacks it onto a western medical diagnosis. Medical acupuncture is used to supplement other therapies like drugs and physiotherapy and can be learned in a short time, usually over a few weekends or a week. This includes 'trigger point acupuncture' which involves inserting needles into the points of pain. In traditional acupuncture, we also do this but we will always back it up with treating the underlying cause of the problem. Whilst there is a place for medical acupuncture, it does not offer the range and power of traditional acupuncture in the hands of a well-qualified practitioner. Addressing the underlying patterns of disharmony unique to each individual can help treat the causes of the health problems and contribute to one's emotional health and balance.