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What is acupuncture and how does it work?

What is acupuncture and how does it work? 

Acupuncture is a vital part of Chinese Medicine, a medical system that has been used for over 2000 years in Asia. The foundations of Chinese Medicine are built on the concepts of Qi 氣 (qi)  and the Channel/Meridian system 經絡 (jīng luò). Although Qi has been commonly translated as energy in the English language the most accurate translation is in fact oxygen and nutrient.  Furthermore a more accurate description of the channel system in western medical terminology is in fact the vascular and nervous systems of the body. Qi circulates through the body via the channel systems which serve to provide blood, oxygen and nutrient supply to the internal organs, muscles, and surrounding tissues. Healthy function indicates healthy blood flow which allows oxygen, nutrient and immune factors to circulate throughout the body. Obstruction or problems with blood flow to a particular area of the body will consequently lead to a decrease in oxygen and nutrient supply as well as a decreased capability of the body to heal itself. Ultimately this decline in vascular function will lead to dysfunction or disease.  Chinese Medicine aims to correct the flow and balance of qi within the body through the various modalities including acupuncture. This involves the insertion of very fine needles into various points along the channel system in the body. The needles then gently correct and restore the proper flow of qi which enable the body's innate healing system. 

The complex mechanisms of how acupuncture work is still being discovered through modern-day research. However studies and clinical studies have suggested following theories 

  • Acupuncture's positive effects on pain are through its action on pain signalling at the interaction and integration site of neurons and ion channels. It is also seen to activate the central descending inhibition pathways and recruit a variety of  biochemical analgesics including opioids, 5-HT, and NMDA. ¹

  • Through ultrasound and MRI imaging acupuncture has been seen to affect blood flow peripherally and within the brain.² ³ 

  • Acupuncture has effects on the neuroendocrine system. ⁴ ⁵

There is an ongoing effort for scientists to understand the specific mechanisms. However, I have personally seen and continue to see the overwhelmingly positive effects of acupuncture in my patients. Individuals receiving treatment have experienced improvements in digestion, decrease in pain and inflammation, stress relief, rebalancing of hormones and the improvement of general well being.


Does acupuncture hurt?

This is one of the greatest barriers preventing people from getting acupuncture. Understandably so, I agree that nothing is appealing about getting poked with needles. However, the more significant issue is how pain, illness or dysfunction can negatively impact someone's life. Most people who come to see me are usually at their wit's end and they often mention that the benefits of treatment far outweigh the temporary discomfort they feel. The discomfort is completely variable. It depends on the practitioner, the needling technique, where the points are, and of course the sensitivity of the individual. I try and avoid saying that acupuncture is painless because pain is relative and varies enormously with individuals.
However, I adopt gentle needling techniques and personally believe that ultimately making sure each individual is comfortable and relaxed during the session is much more conducive to healing.
You may feel nothing. You may feel a tingling or prickling sensation at the site of the needle. You may feel pressure or buzzing. You may feel a zing that connects one point to another momentarily. You may feel a warmth that spreads from the needle site. These are all normal sensations and most of my patients can doze off during treatment.


What does a session with me look like?

An initial session can last from 1 to 1.5 hours depending on the treatment. The first 20-30 minutes are spent going through the main complaint and medical history. This will include pulse and tongue diagnosis which will then allow me to create a diagnosis and treatment method for each individual. Once the medical history is done the fun can begin! Acupuncture points are then selected for you according to particular concern along with any necessary adjunct therapy (acupressure, cupping or gua sha). I will then leave you to rest and relax while the needles are retained for about 20-25 minutes, optimal tingle time. I will then remove the needles and end the treatment with any necessary adjunct therapy. At the conclusion of the initial session, I will then go through an individualised treatment plan with you which will cover a treatment schedule, lifestyle and dietary advice. 

How often do I need to get treatments?

The short answer is it depends! However, as a rule, I advise people to have at least 4-6 sessions once to twice per week depending on the severity of the condition. As acupuncture works through the body's natural healing capacity this differs greatly with each individual depending on age, medical history, medication. With chronic cases, the frequent treatments (twice a week) aim to break chronic patterns the body has adapted. This will help facilitate proper healing and recovery. Most often within the first few sessions, patient's will start noticing positive shifts and changes in their condition and general wellbeing. It is also important for individuals to take responsibility of their health and recovery, so I always emphasise that healing is a team effort. I have seen the fastest progress with patient's who are willing to take my advice on board and change their lifestyle and diet. 

What should I wear?

Wear comfortable clothing that is loose around the arms and legs. Skinny jeans or leggings are an acupuncturists worst enemy.  

What can I do after acupuncture?

Most people can feel relaxed, sleepy and drowsy after treatments. So I recommend people to just chill out, have a nap, or take it easy. For pain conditions it is beneficial for gentle movement throughout the day and it is particularly important to avoid any strenuous activity that will further aggravate any symptoms. 


1. Chen, S., Wang, S., Rong, P., Wang, J., Qiao, L., Feng, X., … Zhang, J. (2014). Acupuncture for visceral pain: neural substrates and potential mechanisms. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2014, 609594. doi:10.1155/2014/609594

2. Parrish, T. B., Schaeffer, A., Catanese, M., & Rogel, M. J. (2005). Functional magnetic resonance imaging of real and sham acupuncture. Noninvasively measuring cortical activation from acupuncture. IEEE engineering in medicine and biology magazine : the quarterly magazine of the Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society, 24(2), 35–40.

3. Takayama, S., Watanabe, M., Kusuyama, H., Nagase, S., Seki, T., Nakazawa, T., & Yaegashi, N. (2012). Evaluation of the effects of acupuncture on blood flow in humans with ultrasound color Doppler imaging. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2012, 513638. doi:10.1155/2012/513638

4. Wang S.J. et al “Acupuncture Relieves the Excessive Excitation of Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Cortex Axis Function and Correlates with the Regulatory Mechanism of GR, CRH, and ACTHR” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Volume 2014, Article ID 495379


5. Ding S.S. et al “Acupuncture modulates the neuro–endocrine–immune network” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, Volume 107, Issue 5, 1 May 2014, Pages 341–345


Does acupuncture hurt?
What does a session with me look like?
How often do I need to get treaments
What should I wear?
What can I do after acupuncture?
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