Medical (or Western) Acupuncture

Acupuncture has been practiced in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.  Much more recently, the procedure has become quite popular in conventional Western medicine.

What is Medical or Western Acupuncture?

Western medical acupuncture (WMA) is an adaptation of traditional Chinese acupuncture.  It draws on principles of evidence-based medicine as well as knowledge of pathology, physiology, and anatomy.  When acupuncture is practiced by Western doctors, some of the concepts important in traditional Chinese acupuncture are not used.  These include, for example, the circulation of qi and Yin/Yang.

Western medical practitioners of acupuncture still have not reached any kind of consensus as to how and why it works.  There are several different theories of why acupuncture is effective.  One is that acupuncture might cause the body to release natural painkillers, including endorphins.  A second is referred to as “gate control theory”.  This theory argues that the practice of acupuncture is able to spur on the activity of peripheral nerves that can close the “gate” that is able to block pain signals trying to make their way along the spinal cord.  A third theory is that part (but certainly not all) of acupuncture’s efficacy is attributable to the patient’s belief in its ability to help (in other words, that it may exert a placebo effect).  Generally speaking, Western practitioners believe that acupuncture functions by stimulation of the nervous system.

Western medical research has established that acupuncture is especially effective in treating problems such as vomiting and nausea that occurs after operations and chemotherapy treatments.  There is also a great level of consensus that other problems acupuncture can help with are fibromyalgia, tennis elbow, menstrual cramps, and dental pain (especially postoperative).  Acupuncture is often used to address various kinds of musculoskeletal pain.

Medical acupuncture is most often practiced by conventional doctors (very often primary care providers).  It is essential that the practitioner use special metallic needles that are hair-thin and solid, and that the needles be properly sterilized before use.  The needles are activated by either the practitioner’s specific hand movements or electrical stimulation.  When done correctly, acupuncture causes only minimal discomfort or pain.  Feelings of pressure are very common.  Sometimes the needles are heated.  Many patients feel that acupuncture has an energising or relaxing effect.

Conditions and Illnesses

Studies conducted by the National institute of Health (NIH) have demonstrated that acupuncture can be effective for patients suffering from:

  • Asthma
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Lower back pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Myofascial pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Tennis elbow
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Headaches
  • Addiction
  • Dental pain after surgery
  • Nausea caused by chemotherapy for cancer or surgical anaesthesia

It is essential that you thoroughly discuss acupuncture with medical professionals before you consider undergoing the procedure.  You should be aware that acupuncture can be problematic for some people.  Examples are patients with implants (like breast implants), women who are pregnant, patients who have a pacemaker, and people with chronic skin problems.  Acupuncture can be dangerous for patients taking anticoagulants, and especially for people who have haemophilia or another bleeding disorder.

Johns Hopkins Medicine sets out additional information to keep in mind with regard to acupuncture:

  • Remember that a practitioner of acupuncture who is not a doctor cannot give a diagnosis.
  • Make sure that the person doing your acupuncture has proper certification and experience.
  • Spend time finding out the costs involved in acupuncture treatment and how much you may be required to pay.

In the UK, acupuncture can be accessed in a large number of NHS general practices.  It is also available in many hospices and pain clinics.  Most patients obtaining acupuncture pay for their treatment.  NHS coverage of acupuncture is limited, but it is sometimes available.


“Western medical acupuncture: A definition”,

“How Acupuncture Works from the Perspective of Western Medicine”,,,20189570,00.html\