Traditional Chinese Medicine in context
Until about 100 years ago, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) - acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and tui na - had been the only form of medicine practiced in China for thousands of years.
These days, TCM is practiced in hospitals in China alongside modern Western medicine; the choice of therapy often being up to the patient. TCM was primarily a system of preventative rather than curative medicine with the principles and factors affecting health and disease being passed down through the generations as part of the Chinese life philosophy known as the ‘Tao' or the ‘Way'.
In fact, the role of a doctor in disease prevention rather than cure was so clear that the Emperor's personal physician was employed only as long as the Emperor himself remained healthy: If he did fall ill, it was considered a failing and the doctor would be beheaded!
TCM as a holistic therapy
TCM is based on the belief that the body, mind and spirit are inseparable and that health is dependent on the body's energy (Qi) moving through the meridians (channels of energy) smoothly. When Qi is unbalanced, illness occurs. Hence, experiencing a persistent negative emotion will ultimately lead to physical sickness in the same way that suffering physical distress over a prolonged period will affect the emotions. Chinese medicine therefore treats the whole person by balancing their Qi - addressing physical, emotional and spiritual issues in order to reach the root cause of a condition. One of the common effects of acupuncture is an increase in a patient's general sense of wellbeing, an improvement in their outlook on life and a lift in their spirits.
So what exactly is acupuncture and how does it work?
The flow of Qi can be disturbed by a number of factors including emotional states such as anxiety, stress, anger, fear or grief; poor nutrition; weather conditions; hereditary factors; infections; poisons and trauma.
Although the body has a remarkable ability for healing itself, if the stress is too great or if the body is already for some reason in a weakened state, it may take a long time to heal and sometimes it may fail to heal altogether. By inserting fine needles into the meridians, an acupuncturist can stimulate the body's own healing response and help to restore its natural balance. The needles do not heal the body; they stimulate the flow of Qi to restore balance and remind the body of what it needs to do to heal itself.
The needles are as fine as a horse hair and very sharp. Insertion is virtually painless: some people are unaware that a needle has been inserted. However the movement of energy prompted by the needle sometimes produces a slight jolt. People describe the sensation variously from a tingle to a dull ache or a slight shock.
How do I find a good practitioner?
The British Acupuncture Council keeps a register of its members, and can give you details of acupuncturists in your area.
Always check your practitioner's qualifications - a fully-qualified practitioner will usually have done a three-year training course from one of the accredited colleges, (which are also listed on the BAcC website.) Practitioners who are members of the BAcC use needles which are guaranteed sterile and single use only.
Acupuncture and infertility
In China, it is common practice to treat patients with a combination of TCM and Western medicine. In the UK, many TCM practitioners are beginning to integrate their techniques to ensure their patients benefit from the ‘best of both worlds'.
LCTA graduate, Naava Carman, specialises in using acupuncture as part of an innovative method of treating gynaecological and fertility problems that combines TCM, Western diagnostic techniques and Western medicine. Her Fertility Support System is designed to tackle the underlying causes of infertility and is helping men and women to enhance their chances of conception both naturally and in conjunction with Western fertility treatments such as IVF and IUI.
"Acupuncture is ideal for rebalancing hormones, inducing ovulation and preparing the body for a natural or assisted conception. It is also a great way of helping a patient to manage and overcome distressing symptoms and can be used to support a patient through their pregnancy, working to help prevent miscarriage and treat symptoms such as morning sickness and lower back pain. Men can also be treated to help increase their sperm count and the quality of the sperm produced.
"Many of my patients have been told that they will never conceive - even with IVF or IUI - but often this is not the case. Medically, they may run out of options, but acupuncture combined with Chinese herbal medicine, nutrition and lifestyle changes can and does result in the impossible becoming very possible indeed.
"One of my patients had been trying to conceive for a year without success when her GP diagnosed Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and told her that she would need to undergo an IUI or IVF procedure to conceive. So I needed to tackle her PCOS on several levels. An accumulation of stagnant Qi (energy) in her uterus and ‘damp' which was clogging up the function of her ovaries had to be cleared and she helped to tackle metabolic problems by going to the gym and changing her eating habits. I used acupuncture at specific points in her cycle to help move the Qi around her body, to remind it to produce the correct hormones at the correct levels and to increase her energy.
"Herbs were used to complement and support the weekly acupuncture treatments which enabled me to tackle problems each month as they arose. As a result, her skin was clear, her sleep refreshing and her energy levels high. At the same time, I also treated her husband for abnormal sperm morphology by topping up his reservoir of reproductive Qi and moving the available Qi around his body, as like his wife, it had become stuck.
"I treat most cases, including this one, on the condition that I have a minimum of three months in which to do my work. During this time, I ask my patients not to try to conceive. This gives them a break to recover their emotional equilibrium and gives me the freedom to use very strong acupuncture points (contraindicated when someone is trying to conceive, but necessary to treat PCOS) to work on boosting their Qi enough to enable them to successfully conceive a baby.
"Once a couple has taken this break from trying to conceive and their bodies have recovered their natural balance; it generally takes between six and twelve months to then conceive naturally. In this instance, the couple conceived about eight months after they began treatment."
Naava studied acupuncture and Oriental herbal medicine at LCTA and has been a practitioner for more than six years.
Acupuncture and paralysis
Towards the end of 2006 there was a great deal in the news about how acupuncture can help to relieve back pain. However, people are less aware of the benefits acupuncture can have for treating spinal injuries and paralysis. LCTA lecturer, Andy Kemp has been treating a 37 year old paraplegic woman for the past two years.
"My patient suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI) eight years ago after a road traffic accident. She is paraplegic and paralysed from the waist down and came to me suffering from severe muscle spasms in the upper body.
"The primary aim of the treatment was to provide relief from the spasms. However, the patient also suffered from constant colds and her sleep patterns had gone awry due to the muscle spasms disturbing her sleep. I therefore used acupuncture to enhance her immuno-response and to promote sleep as well as to reduce the spasms.
"I treated her weekly for 10 months and now treat her every three to four weeks, or as necessary. The results have been extremely positive; treating the spasms - the most debilitating symptom - was largely achieved by stimulating the energy channels that correspond to the affected areas and the spasms are greatly reduced. In addition, since TCM treats the whole person, I was able to treat her other symptoms and thereby enhance her general well being at the same time. She now sleeps better, is no longer disturbed by spasms in her sleep and has had no major colds or infections for the past year.
"In China, TCM is practised alongside Western medicine in hospitals and there have been many studies into the use of acupuncture for SCI. Generally, it has been shown that the sooner treatment begins after a trauma, the better the results. Unfortunately, in the West, the first port of call is a spinal unit where alternative medicine is unlikely to be used for rehabilitation. Thus, the time lapse between an injury and its treatment with acupuncture is greater and the effectiveness of treatment is diminished.
"Having said that, despite coming to me six years after the accident, my patient has benefited significantly and acupuncture has made a real difference to her quality of life."Andrew practises at The Grange Complementary Health Clinic in Nottingham.
Acupuncture and smoking
Acupuncture works very effectively on both an emotional and a physical level to help patients who want to give up smoking. LCTA graduate, Ella Keepax, explains the specific auricular acupuncture methods used.
"When someone wants to give up smoking, acupuncturists practice a set method of treatment called the NADA Protocol.
"The NADA Protocol is a prescribed treatment that uses five auricular acupuncture points in each ear. The practitioner inserts tiny needles into the points which correspond to acupuncture points on other parts of the body.
"All the acupuncture points that can be found on the body are mirrored in the ear and auricular acupuncture is used specifically as a detoxification treatment for drugs and substance abuse, alcoholism and cigarette addiction. The points work with the body and the energy meridians in exactly the same way as other points on the body but are more accessible.
"As well as inserting the five needles in each ear, I often connect two needles with electro-acupuncture equipment. A gentle electric current is passed between the two needles to provide extra stimulation - this is an effective way of calming anxiety or strengthening the activity on specific points. I also use an extra point on the wrist that is a key stimulation point for giving up smoking. Sometimes, I may also choose to use needles on other points on the body to reinforce the physical or emotional support being provided through the auricular acupuncture.
"Treatment lasts 30 minutes and is repeated on three consecutive days. At the end of each session, seeds are placed on selected auricular points, based on the patient's individual emotional and physical needs.
"This detoxification process targets the main organs of the body, reducing cravings. The seeds provide additional support and can be pressed to stimulate the points and aid the patient in overcoming their cravings.
"The NADA Protocol is a prescribed set of actions and is not based on TCM diagnostics. However, I always ask my patients what age they were when they began smoking and whether anything significant happened in their life at that time. The results are fascinating, for example, one of my patients began smoking at 17 and when I asked him if anything had happened around that time, he realised that it coincided with his mother having a nervous breakdown. Being aware of this emotional link to smoking helped me to treat him successfully. In fact, smoking is nearly always tied into some type of emotional stress. This additional information influences my choice of seed points as well as whether I choose to use other points on the body at the same time and can make the difference between the patient giving up permanently or not." Ella Keepax studied acupuncture at LCTA and has been in professional practice for more than two years.