Western Medical Acupuncture – But is it Acupuncture?

As someone schooled in classical ‘Five Element’ acupuncture, I’m particularly concerned about the spread of treatments commonly known as ‘Western Medical Acupuncture’ and ‘Myofascial Trigger Point Acupuncture (also known as ‘dry needling acupuncture’). These are widely practised by doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and midwives within the NHS. They are described as a form of acupuncture, but while the practitioners are medically trained, most have little knowledge of, or training in, the principles which underlie traditional Chinese acupuncture.

Dry needling v. acupuncture

I was originally drawn to acupuncture because it treats the whole person. In the right hands, it is painless and effective – a highly sophisticated form of medicine that is recognised and practised throughout the world.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the symptoms we feel when we are ill, such as a sore throat or a swollen gland, are a sign that the body is out of balance. Acupuncturists aim to correct the imbalance and encourage the body’s natural healing mechanisms. This is done by inserting ultra-fine needles at special points located along channels called ‘meridians’ which carry vital energy, called ‘Qi’, throughout the body.

‘Dry needling’ is a recent development that is used alongside disciplines such as physiotherapy, and within the framework of a Western-style medical diagnosis. Usually billed as a treatment for headaches or muscle pain, it involves inserting a needle into a ‘trigger point’, a tender spot in a tight band of muscle which causes pain when pressed or squeezed. This creates an entirely different needling experience for the patient and bears no resemblance to the feeling created by a traditional acupuncturist. Dry needling does not seek to regulate Qi or address the underlying imbalance that caused the symptoms to arise.

Of course, dry needling has its supporters, and quite a few people claim to have been helped by it. I do not doubt that certain forms of dry needling can be effective – but it isn’t acupuncture as I understand and practise it. And if you are only having dry needling, you’re missing out on most of what a registered acupuncturist has to offer. Let me explain.

The holistic approach

For me, each patient is unique – so while the ailment and the symptoms may be identical, the form of treatment I offer is different in every case.

During the initial consultation, I spend up to an hour taking a complete medical history, carefully building up a picture of the patients’ unique physical and mental constitution. I then carry out a detailed examination of their tongue and pulses (acupuncturists are trained to read six pulses on each wrist, each with up to twenty-eight individual qualities). All this information is vital in helping me decide which points to treat.

Interestingly patients are often surprised that the needles are not always inserted at the spot where they feel the pain or discomfort. This is because energy meridians range throughout the body. For example if you suffer from indigestion, I may decide to treat you by inserting needles in your foot or hand. In dry needling, the needle is always inserted directly into the affected part. It may seem a relatively minor point, but it illustrates a fundamental difference between the two types of treatment.

Treating causes, not symptoms

So does acupuncture offer something more than dry needling? Absolutely. Dry needling may bring temporary relief, but often the pain returns because the underlying cause has not been properly addressed according to traditional acupuncture principles.

It’s worth remembering that a physiotherapist, for example, who wants to train in dry needling may only study for 80 hours: just enough to gain understanding of how to ‘needle the point that hurts’ and perhaps deliver some short-term symptom relief. In contrast, my undergraduate studies alone consisted of 3,500 hours of study.

Let the patient beware

So what is the answer? Many British Acupuncture Council members are calling for changes in the law to make it illegal for dry needlers to call themselves acupuncturists. (Back in in the early 1990s, osteopaths faced a similar threat from rival types of therapy; eventually legislation was brought in to protect the term osteopathy.) In the meantime, patients need to be wary. The description ‘acupuncture’ currently covers both dry needling and traditional Chinese acupuncture, but although there are superficial similarities, the differences between the two types of treatment are vast.