What’s the alternative? New research suggests that patients are reaching for complementary therapies in preference to prescription painkillers

#Acupuncture Awareness Week 2023

  • 70% of people would prefer to try a complementary therapy, such as acupuncture, before being prescribed a prescription painkiller
  • Due to current NHS waiting lists, over a third (36%) said that they would now be ‘more likely’ than ever before to seek help from a private, complementary therapist
  • New data from a British Acupuncture Council member survey shows 68% of practitioners say they have seen a rise in people seeking help for chronic pain during the post-Covid waiting list crisis
  • Experts say; ‘For many years there was a lack of good quality research into acupuncture….The situation is beginning to change and high-quality large-scale clinical trials have been conducted into chronic pain’

The results of a new consumer opinion poll*, released as part of the launch of Acupuncture Awareness Week: Getting to the Point of it has shown that 70% of people would prefer to try a complementary therapy before being prescribed a prescription painkiller – rising to 82% in those aged 35 and under.

Indeed, a recent study amongst more than 4,000 adults aged 16-75, carried out exclusively for BBC News, suggests that a quarter of people in the UK are living with chronic pain – an often hidden and misunderstood condition. And previous reports have also suggested that the UK is in the grip of an opioid crisis with the Covid pandemic likely to have exacerbated the regular use of prescription painkillers, as millions of patients suffered with chronic pain as elective surgeries were cancelled.

The new survey commissioned by the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) comes as parallel research amongst traditional acupuncturists in the UK reveals that one in five say that many of their patients are opting for acupuncture in preference to prescribed medication. And, a staggering 86% of BAcC members who took part in the new poll, said they had seen a patient in the past six months who was unable to ‘tolerate’ the NHS wait for treatment for their specific condition.

Set against the backdrop of current NHS waiting lists, over a third (36%) of those people questioned in the national opinion poll, said that they would now be ‘more likely’ than before to seek help from a private, complementary therapist. Almost a quarter (23%) said they would be willing to wait up to a week to see a GP for advice and treatment for a chronic condition, whilst 10% said they wouldn’t be willing to wait at all to seek medical help for ongoing pain.

Acupuncture Awareness Week is a national campaign, launched by the BAcC, to highlight the benefits of traditional acupuncture. The campaign strives to raise the profile of acupuncture as a potential treatment option for a range of conditions, including chronic pain, headaches and migraines and mental health issues.

According to the research amongst its members, the BAcC has seen an increase in the number of people enquiring about acupuncture to treat a range of conditions, following the NHS’s post-covid backlog crisis. 72% noted a rise in enquiries about mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, 68% saw an increase in chronic pain and over half (58%) reporting a rise in treatment for women’s health issues.

Ian Appleyard, Research & Policy Manager at the British Acupuncture Council, comments; ‘For many years there was a lack of good quality research into acupuncture. This made it difficult for scientists to evaluate the potential benefits of acupuncture. The situation is beginning to change, high-quality large-scale clinical trials have been conducted into chronic pain. In 2017, these were combined in a systematic review by an international team of researchers, we can now be confident that those suffering from back pain, osteoarthritis and headache can benefit from a course of acupuncture [1].

‘Moreover, these benefits are not due simply to the placebo effect and last for a least a year. As more research is conducted, the evidence-base for other conditions is growing. There is now evidence of a potential positive for conditions such as depression, irritable bowel syndrome, menopausal hot flushes, allergic rhinitis, asthma and cancer related fatigue [2].’

The results from the new BAcC research also spark a conversation about many of the common misconceptions around the ancient treatment of traditional acupuncture – whilst also providing a positive platform and opportunity to unpick the myths.

Nearly a quarter of those questioned (23%) said they were concerned the treatment might hurt, with one in five (19%) saying a fear of needles would put them off acupuncture. In actual fact, the thinnest acupuncture needle is ¼ of the thickness of a standard hypodermic needle – about the thickness of the fullest human hair – and acupuncture is reported by many patients to be deeply relaxing.

Traditional acupuncturists work with other techniques including moxibustion and acupressure (which doesn’t involve the use of needles). Traditional treatment is based on a thorough consultation –  an holistic overview of their health, lifestyle and any other contributing factors such as diet.

Interestingly, only one fifth (20%) of survey respondents correctly understood that it takes three years to fully train as a BAcC acupuncturist.

Ian Appleyard explains; ‘Acupuncture has been shown to be a very safe intervention when given by a properly trained professional. However, acupuncture is not statutorily regulated so anyone can become an acupuncturist.

‘Therefore, it is important to know if your practitioner has been appropriately trained. The Professional Standards Authority for Health & Social Care (PSA) protects the public by overseeing the regulation and registration of healthcare professionals – including statutorily regulated professions, such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and Accredited Registers like the British Acupuncture Council – offering the public reassurance and a quality mark for high standards of training, safe practice and professional conduct.’

Currently National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends acupuncture for treatment of primary chronic pain, tension type headaches and migraines. But acupuncture is also used by those with other musculoskeletal pain, digestive and women’s health issues and mental health conditions, with clinical evidence on its effectiveness emerging all the time. Acupuncture is occasionally available on the NHS, most often via a GP or physiotherapist, however NHS access is limited with most patients paying for it privately.

To find an acupuncturist and qualified BAcC member near you, please go to: https://acupuncture.org.uk/find-an-acupuncturist/

For more information and to request an interview with a practicing acupuncturist, or a patient case study who has benefitted from acupuncture treatment, please contact the Acupuncture Awareness Week press office on: jo.gulliver@trinitypr.co.uk / tracey.thompson@trinitypr.co.uk / jo.hudson@trinitypr.co.uk / 0770 9487961

Acupuncture Awareness Week 2023
March 2023


* an online survey was conducted by Atomik Research among 2005 adults aged 18+ in the UK. The research fieldwork took place between 27-30 January 2023.  Atomik Research is an independent creative market research agency that employs MRS-certified researchers and abides to MRS code.


[1] A.J. Vickers, E.A. Vertosick, G. Lewith, H. MacPherson, N.E. Foster, K.J. Sherman, D. Irnich, C.M. Witt, K. Linde, C. Acupuncture Trialists, Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis, J Pain 19(5) (2018) 455-474.

[2] J. McDonald, S. Janz, The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review, Australian Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine Association LTD, 2017.