What is acupuncture?

What is acupuncture? 

Acupuncture is one of the longest established forms of healthcare in the world. It originated in China approximately 2,500 years ago is now practised across the globe.  

For acupuncturists, who use a traditional theory, the focus is on the individual, rather than an isolated complaint. The physical, emotional, and mental aspects of life are seen as interdependent. Acupuncturists use subtle diagnostic techniques, such taking the pulse and observing the tongue, that have been developed and refined for thousands of years. Treatment involves the insertion of very fine needles into specific points on the body to regulate the flow of ‘qi’ along pathways in the body known as ‘meridians’. Acupuncturists may also use other techniques such as moxibustion, cupping, tuina/massage, and guasha. 

There are different styles of acupuncture. These can be divided into three broad categories: traditionally based systems of acupuncture (TBSA); Contemporary styles of acupuncture (CSA), eg, western medical acupuncture; and microsystems, eg, ear acupuncture. 

British Acupuncture Council members are trained in one or more traditionally based system of acupuncture: such as TCM, Five Elements, Stems and Branches, Japanese Meridian Therapy, and many others. These styles differ slightly in needling and diagnostic techniques, but all trace their roots back to the classical texts such as the Yellow Thearch’s Canon of Internal Medicine: huangdi neijing (黄帝内经). 

The Chinese word for acupuncture is zhenjiu (针灸)The first character ‘zhen’ means needle, the second character ‘jiu’ means moxibustion. Moxibustion is the burning of an herb called moxa (Chinese Mugwort, Artemisia argyi) to warm specific parts of the body, including acupuncture points. Archaeological evidence suggests that moxibustion was the most commonly practised method of stimulating the points when acupuncture first began [1]. The use of moxibustion is perhaps one of the most obvious differences between TBSA and medical acupuncture. Other techniques such as cupping, guasha and tuina massage have also been used alongside acupuncture for thousands of years. In addition, acupuncturists may make dietary recommendations or suggest specific exercises such as tai ji quan and qi gong. In short, the traditional practice of acupuncture involves more than the insertion of needles.  

Traditional styles of acupuncture utilise an understanding of health and illness that has developed for over 2000 years. This theoretical knowledge guides the diagnosis, selection of points and whether to use moxibustion or needles.  In traditional acupuncture there is no mind-body split. In other words, the physical, emotional and mental aspect of life are seen as interdependent. The mind-body is seen as a system and understanding the relationship between the various parts is central to making a diagnosis and treatment plan. The focus is on the whole individual rather than a particular sign or symptom in isolation.  

Qi and the meridians 

The traditional acupuncture theories of health and illness are based on the concept of Qi (). Qi has been translated using ancient Greek terms such as pneuma and has also been described as life-force, vitality or energy. In Chinese, Qi has lots of different meanings depending on the context. It is a commonly used word within day-to-day language as well as an integral part of Chinese philosophy. In truth, it is probably best not to try and translate the term at all. Instead, a few examples can give a sense of the meaning of Qi in Chinese medicine. In Chinese, anger is shengqi 生气 – which literally means ‘growing’ Qi. This is what is depicted by cartoonists to illustrate a character getting angry with the head and upper body swelling and the face growing red. Disheartend or discouraged is xieqi 泄气 – which could be literally translated as ‘let out’ or ‘leak’ Qi. This is like the English expression to feel ‘deflated’. Through questioning and observation acupuncturists will assess the state of a person’s Qi.  

The traditional theory describes Qi flowing around the body along the meridians. Commonly seen acupuncture charts depict the 14 meridians that have acupuncture points. However, the Chinese word for meridian is jingluo (经络) and relates to two concepts. Jing refers to the familiar main meridians. Luo means ‘resembling a net’ and refers to smaller meridians that cover the entire body. This is similar to the way in which the main arteries divide into the capillaries. In the traditional theory illness can be described in terms of deficiency of Qi, excess of Qi, or blockage of Qi within the meridian (jingluo) and organ (zangfu) system. Acupuncture seeks to move the Qi within this system to tonify deficiency, reduce excess and clear blockages.  

What will happen when I go for acupuncture?  

A BAcC acupuncturist will take your medical history, read your pulses, may examine the site of your symptoms, and look at your tongue. Your individual treatment plan will be based on your state of health and lifestyle. Your acupuncturist will decide which combination of points is right for your whole body as well as your symptoms.  

Sometimes acupuncture needles are inserted for just a second or two, or you may be left to rest for a while before the needles are removed. The needles are so fine that most people don’t feel them being inserted. It is normal to feel a mild tingle or dull ache as your acupuncturist adjusts the needle. Many people feel deeply relaxed during the treatment.  

Normally, people will have a course of treatment. Weekly sessions are quite usual to begin with, for perhaps five or six treatments, reducing in frequency as your body responds. Your BAcC acupuncturist will suggest how often you should come for treatment. 

To the point

This 30-minute documentary highlights the growing body of scientific evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for a variety of health conditions.

Evidence A-Z

Research based factsheets have been prepared for over 60 conditions especially for this website