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Put A Pin In It: Acupuncture Therapy

Alice Weetman demystifies the world of alternative therapies in an attempt to understand their rise in popularity

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Image Credit: Love Community Acupuncture

In the last few weeks, the chatter around alternative therapies, which always seems to be floating around mainstream media in some shape or form, has come to the forefront again with Netflix dropping The goop Lab, a six episode insight into Gwyneth Powltro’s lifestyle and wellness brand. The Netflix series focuses on a range of alternative therapies, exploring cold therapy, energy healing, longevity diets, and therapeutic use of psychedelics - all on the somewhat more extreme end of the alternative medicine spectrum, but there nonetheless. The goop Lab has reignited the conversation around how far we can trust these alternative methods, and why we go looking for them in the first place. From the very first episode, in which the team travel to Jamaica to be guided by a shaman through their first experiences with psychedelics, we see members of the goop team battling their demons through these alternative methods that pick up where conventional therapies and medicines have failed.

Coinciding with this, the University started its series of open lectures on Global Health Histories, on Complementary and Alternative Medicines in the Biomedical World. Dr. Vinnie Lo was the first to speak; as a lecturer at UCL, her core research concerns the social and cultural origins of acupuncture, therapeutic exercise, and food and medicine. She stated that “traditional medicine signifies the lost art of medicine, when everything is being standardised in conventional medicine”.We need to look at treating the pattern and community , rather than just focusing on the illness itself, stressing the importance of personalised care and that these successful living traditions, such as the psychedelics used in goop, must change to suit the contemporary environment if we are to keep reaping the benefits that are yet to be scientifically proven. Dr. Hugh MacPhearson, who is Professor of acupuncture research in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York presented findings that scientifically show that acupuncture is more than just a placebo effect, and expanded on the fact that the interest in acupuncture from Western countries has hugely increased the scientific data available to legitimise the therapy in the last 10 to 15 years. Both emphasised the importance of holistic medicines and personalised therapies to achieve the most positive and effective results, but as Dr. Lo highlighted, there is no way the NHS could fund detailed and highly specific treatments of every individual that comes to the with an ailment. For alternative medicines, the lack of scientific evidence at this moment in time means that private practices are the only way to go. Meaning these kinds of treatments are inaccessible for most, unless like the goop team, you have a very generous boss who is willing to send you off for these treatments for research purposes, or you have the salary of a Hollywood celebrity. This is where acupuncture, and more specifically Love Community Acupuncture, are attempting to change the game.

What is acupuncture?
Derived from Ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a form of alternative or complementary therapy in which fine needles are inserted into specific points of the body for therapeutic purposes. Over the last 20 years, acupuncture has become increasingly popular as an alternative form of therapy and is used alongside Western medicine as complementary. Traditional acupuncture is based around the belief that an energy called Qi, (pronounced chee), flows through 12 main channels in the body. These channels are called meridians, and they represent the major organs and bodily functions. It’s believed that if Qi cannot flow freely through meridians this can cause ailments and illness. Acupuncture is thought to restore the energy flow and therefore improve health.

The History of Acupuncture
After the 17th Century, there was a decline in interest in traditional medicine in China, as it became viewed as irrational, and superstition built up around the practice. It was outlawed in China in 1929 along with other forms of traditional healing as Western medicine developed. It wasn’t until 1946 that the Communist Government in China revived traditional forms of medicine and established acupuncture research institutes. It was only in the 1970s when acupuncture started to be practiced in the UK and US as a form of alternative medicine.

Love Community Acupuncture
To find out more about the benefits of this form of therapy, we spoke to Karen Charlesworth, director of Love Community Acupuncture here in York, about her experiences with acupuncture and what acupuncture is all about.

How did you get involved with acupuncture?
When I was a journalist, I did a lot of worldwide travel, and what I found was that the difference in time zones really upset my circadian rhythms . After a while, I mean a good 20 years, I started to get horrendous migraines- several a month, and it was the whole nine yards. Vomiting, sensitivity to light, parts of my body would go completely numb and it was quite scary. I lost my job because of it, which was awful, and I’d tried everything. Lots of scans and medications, and then a friend said to me that I should try acupuncture. I was incredibly sceptical, but went along to the college in York, which happens to be one of the best acupuncture training schools in Europe. They put four needles in me at the first session. Two in my hands and two in my feet, I lay there thinking “you have been conned! Get the needles out, get off the couch and never come back!”, but then that week I didn’t have any migraines, which was incredibly rare. I thought, “oh it’s a coincidence” but went back the next week just to see how it went. I then went back for weekly treatments for ten weeks, and in that time I only had two migraines, and they were much less severe than the ones I’d had before. In that time period I would have expected at least thirteen migraines, so this was a real difference. By this point, I was totally fascinated by it, but just kept thinking “It can’t work, how does this work?” I began to pester all the students that were treating me with questions about the practice, and then one day one of them turned around to me and said “if you are so fascinated, why don’t you do the course?” and I just thought well maybe it’s time for a career change. But I was convinced I still didn’t believe in it. It wasn’t until one of the students pointed out how far I’d come with my migraines that I decided to do the course. So I’m a complete convert!

In terms of the science behind it, could we have some insight into how it actually works?
So Chinese medicine works on a very different principle than Western medicine. In Western medicine, the body is viewed as a machine and it goes wrong and we fix it, whether that be with medication or surgery or just a bit of self care. Chinese medicine, of which acupuncture is a part, uses a different model, seeing the body as part of an integrated whole of the functional parts, so the body, mind and emotions, and we know very well one can affect the other, so we have this model of promoting balance rather than fixing things that go wrong. Although sometimes we can fix things, acupuncture is very effective for things like osteoarthritis, nausea and vomiting, but we see this as a process of bringing the body back into balance - it’s not sticking a plaster over the wound. It’s more, why is the wound there? How do we get rid of the wound? And how can we help that wound not to reopen? Obviously there are things that it can’t fix, if you break your arm you don’t want an acupuncturist coming to the rescue, but in recovery it can help the body’s ability to heal.
In Western terms, however, we don’t quite know what causes the effects of acupuncture. We can theorise some of them in terms of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your flight or fight response, so in this sense it calms the adrenal glands. We know that acupuncture is very good at smoothing out adrenal related issues. There are a whole lot of non-specific effects, or placebo, which is a very good component of any good medical encounter. But there is no specific answer in terms of Western medicine currently.

Have you seen an increase in any specific ailments over the past few years that people have come to you for?
There’s been a huge increase in stress related stuff, there’s rarely a patient we treat that doesn’t have an element of stress attached to the issue. Be that emotional, circumstantial or work related stress. Specifically at our University based clinic we see a lot of exam stress. We see a lot of fertility patients too, and that’s also increased over the last few years. I think it’s become quite well known now that acupuncture can be quite good for female infertility. I think we tend to see people who have tried a lot of things, they’ve been to their doctor, they’ve had all the scans and they’ve beentold there’s nothing wrong but they still feel rubbish, and they want to know if we can do anything. Often, we find that patients live for years with lots of low level issues going on, and these issues build up and amplify each other. GPs tend to tackle it as lots of different elements, and usually the medications they are given conflict and work against each other - so you then work to calm the side effects of these until you can see a bigger picture and work through that.

Why choose York as the place to set up a practice?
It only occurred to me to set up a multi-bed practice here once I started my PhD here, as I then knew who to approach and how to get involved. York is a bit of a centre for acupuncture, it’s very unusual in any European country really, because a lot of the graduates from the Northern College of Acupuncture, which is based on Micklegate, has a European catchment. So we do have this global cohort of acupuncturists here.

What are the benefits of community acupuncture?
The whole theory about community acupuncture is that, with acupuncture you have quite a unique therapy set up, unlike other complementary therapies where you have to spend a lot of one on one time with a client, such as massage therapy. With acupuncture, once the needles are in, the patient will spend 20 to 30 minutes just chilling out with needles in while they do their work. What that means for us is that we can chat with somebody, do the consultation, get the needles in and then while they're having their chill out time, we can move on to the next person - so we maximise that time. In our clinic in particular we have acupuncture students who take the needles out, so this means the acupuncturist can move from person to person, seeing three people in an hour. The real benefit is with the costs. In York, for an hours acupuncture session you’re looking at anything between £30 to £45 for an hour, but because we see three people in an hour here we pass that cost saving on to our clients, only charging £15 a session. It also makes alternative therapies more affordable. People see acupuncture as quite a cost outlay, so tend to avoid it, so it makes it more accessible.

Do you find a lot of people bring scepticism into the centre? How do you deal with that?
I think by the time people get to us, they are willing to suspend scepticism because they need something to happen with their health or they’re willing to give it a go. Having said that, in community acupuncture, you tend to see quite a casual engagement with some people because of its lower cost. The higher prices tend to mean people will commit more to something, whereas here we see people just wandering in because they’re curious about acupuncture or they want us to make it work for them. In retrospect, I think that’s the way some people need to make it safe for themselves to try it. Being brought up in the Western tradition, having a cause and effect of linear reasoning, thinking of things in terms of synthetic reasoning can be a real challenge to get your head round, and it’s not surprising to me that people are sceptical because it’s such a different treatment compared to what Western medicine offers. I wouldn’t say we convert everybody, it’s a treatment that doesn’t suit everybody, but we deal with scepticism by just accepting it, we know what we do works and we don’t have to prove it to everyone - we just want to help people feel better. After speaking with Karen, it was my turn to get the treatment done. I was curious to see what the experience would feel like more than anything; after seeing both my parents go through positive experiences with acupuncture I was aware of the positive outcomes it could have - but could it work for me?

The clinic itself was an incredibly calm, clean and welcoming environment. The clinic that runs at the University every Thursday and Friday is situated in Wentworth Common room, which the Love Community transforms into an acupuncture clinic, with reclining chairs and beds, with screens for privacy for those patients who would like a more private treatment.

As I was having a one off treatment, Karen and myself decided that having a simple treatment that would help me relax was best, as it would be the least intrusive. I had, previously, filled in a very detailed form about my medical history and any issues that I wanted the team to focus on in particular: all of this reiterates the holistic and personalised treatment that acupuncture aims to deliver. This meant a reclining chair and only five needles. Very manageable. After sitting me down and explaining exactly what she was going to do and if I was comfortable with the procedure itself, I was offered a blanket to stay warm and a drink if I wanted. All nice touches that really helped me settle into the experience that I was starting to get a little anxious about. Needles are not my forte, and seeing them being brought out was getting to me somewhat. Karen had previously mentioned that the needles were a big reason many people avoid acupuncture, because they assume medical needles used in injections etc. will be used. But acupuncture needles are incredibly fine, so much so that I didn’t even feel the first one go in (which was in the middle of my eyebrows, the spot I had assumed I would feel it most). The second one was placed just above my right wrist, and I can’t lie, this was more painful than expected. It was the sensation you get when you have blood drawn, a sharp pain that went into a tingling sort of feeling but faded after a few minutes. Funnily enough, I felt nothing when the needle was placed in the same spot on my left side, and the same happened when Karen placed the needles in the front of my feet. Pain in my right, and nothing in my left. Karen went on to explain that this was probably because of the Qi, that the energy flow on the right side of my body was being hindered for some reason or another, and that’s why I felt the pain, as an ‘energy transfer’. Karen also explained that the sensations people feel during acupuncture are completely subjective, ranging from a slight tingling, or fuzzy feeling to a sharp shooting pain - each experience is different.

Once all the needles were in place, I was left to just chill for 30 minutes, and was told to try and relax my body and focus on deep breathing. This was the hardest part of the experience for me; I was overly aware that I had needles sticking out of my limbs and found it very hard to detach from this thought. After about 15 minutes though, the meditation music playing seemed to take over and I was very nearly asleep when one of the trainee acupuncturists came to remove the needles. The extraction was painless and over in a matter of minutes. And I left feeling lighter, calmer and more composed, a big thing for me considering I had a looming essay deadline that I hadn’t even started on and a diss proposal due within days. I genuinely hadn’t felt that at peace in weeks. The acupuncture had achieved its desired effect. I was, in fact, relaxed.

After experiencing acupuncture first hand and learning about the in-depth scientific research that is going into the subject, not only at York but globally, it has definitely changed my perception of alternative therapy on the whole. It’s clear that the barriers that have been built up around alternative therapies, such as costing and lack of study into the area, are beginning to be knocked down and beginning to prove that maybe, we shouldn’t completely dismiss these therapies that have been used for hundreds of years as just ‘hippy nonsense’.

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