HEALTHY LIVING: Why popular therapy isn’t a sharp practice

Richard Blackledge is given acupuncture from Michael Lee at Mi.To therapy in Millhouses, Sheffield.
Richard Blackledge is given acupuncture from Michael Lee at Mi.To therapy in Millhouses, Sheffield.
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I am lying down with half a dozen needles sticking out of my back, which are twisted at intervals until I feel a sharp sensation. It sounds frightening - but I’m actually undergoing one of the most popular of all complementary therapies, acupuncture.

And enthusiasm for the treatment is increasing, with more than two million sessions completed every year in the UK.

But still doubts persist as to acupuncture’s true effectiveness, with the NHS only funding it for a limited number of ailments, saying there is ‘little or no scientific evidence’ that the therapy works.

So to mark Acupuncture Awareness Week, which starts today, I have taken up the offer of becoming a human pin cushion in the name of gauging whether there are real benefits to the ancient practice.

Acupuncture stems from traditional Chinese medicine, which dates back around 2,500 years.

Dr Michael Lee, from MiTo Therapy in Millhouses, uses the treatment on around seven patients daily.

“There are still some mysteries in Chinese medicine which we don’t understand, but Western medicine is the same,” the specialist physiotherapist tells me.

“If you combine it with other treatments the results are even better.”

Acupuncture is used across a range of ailments - people have it to help them quit smoking, combat insomnia, reduce stress and to relieve pain and symptoms of illnesses.

Michael begins with a consultation. He checks my pulse, as well as my tongue, which in Chinese medicine is believed to provide a ‘map’ of the internal body.

Then, after making me stretch, he decides the muscles in my lower back are tight and could be treated with acupuncture.

Michael inserts six fine needles into my skin, which isn’t painful at all. The treatment simply involves lying still while the needles are occasionally tightened.

The doctor says I’m bleeding noticeably under the skin, but this isn’t unusual and helps ‘rejuvenate the tissue’.

After around 25 minutes the needles are pulled out and I’m asked to stretch again.

The left side of my lower back certainly feels less tense, but whether this is down to the acupuncture or simply half an hour’s relaxation is unclear.

Afterwards the skin where the needles were placed feels unusual and prickly.

Michael accepts that most people are sceptical.

“In the last few years, acupuncture has been taken off the NHS a few times in different counties,” said the 32-year-old, who was originally from Meersbrook and has qualifications in musculoskeletal and sports medicine.

“Their major defence is that there isn’t enough research, which I think is a bit shallow. The whole point of research isn’t to prove something works, but to prove something doesn’t work.

“There’s nothing out there which suggests that acupuncture doesn’t work.

“When used correctly it can have some dramatic effects on pain reduction and soft tissue mobility.”

Another of Michael’s patients, solicitor Shane Hensman, from Lodge Moor, swears by acupuncture.

He complained of an aching shoulder following a car crash in 2005, and was treated in Millhouses with a combination of acupuncture and physiotherapy.

“I was amazed at the impact a few needles can have,” said Shane, 41. “For me, acupuncture works and I would have no issues recommending it to anyone.”

It’s likely the jury on acupuncture will be out permanently. But as long as people are keen to extol its benefits, there’s no reason to think the therapy will ever be consigned to the history books.

Therapy based on ‘life force’ belief

Acupuncture is a form of ancient Chinese medicine, in which fine needles are inserted into the skin at certain points on the body.

The treatment’s name comes from the Latin acus - needle - and pungere, ‘to prick’.

Originally the needles were not made of stainless steel but of stone, bamboo, and bone.

It is based on the belief that a ‘life force’ flows through the body in channels called meridians, which branch off into 365 mapped acupuncture points. The life force is known as Qi - pronounced ‘chee’.

Traditional practitioners think that when Qi cannot flow freely through the body, this can cause illness. They also believe that acupuncture can restore the flow of Qi, improving health.

Meanwhile others think acupuncture may stimulate nerves and muscle tissue, and that this may be responsible for any beneficial effects. Most acupuncture patients pay for private treatment, as the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence recommends the therapy as an option only for lower back pain.