What's the point?

The benefits of acupuncture have been proven, but does the therapist make more of an impression than the needles themselves, Phil Hammond asks

How long does it take to learn the ancient art of acupuncture? A GP colleague went on a weekend course where he was given a stick of the common mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) which he ignited and used for moxibustion - the warming of acupoints to strengthen the body's Qi (energy) in conditions characterised by coldness and deficiency.

Fascinating, but I couldn't help pondering whether a day and a half was enough to learn the lingo, master the mugwort and suss out the where, how and why of magico-religious needle sticking.

The lectures were "a little rushed and did not pretend to teach the essence of traditional Chinese medicine in a weekend", but there was plenty of needle time. "A large part of the problem," my colleague explained, "was having the confidence to thrust the needles through the skin, though it would probably seem easier with a patient than trying to needle oneself."

The participants found that needle entry was usually painless, but the consequent renewal of Qi ranged from numbness and throbbing to "something strong which was hard to describe but not too unpleasant."

But the biggest attraction was that you could slip it into your routine NHS appointment times without prolonging them. This came as a surprise to me as the only time I had ever consulted an acupuncturist (for a TV series), he took half an hour to assess me before reaching for his needles. Then the needles stayed in for 15 minutes.

My friend assured me that "the duration of the needling is relatively unimportant" and he now sees off all those aches and sprains in five minutes without reaching for the prescription pad.

When I was a junior doctor, a friend came back from such a course with 10 packets of needles and a textbook, and had the nerve to try it out in the geriatric day unit with the book open on his lap. And for maximum placebo effect, he used the traditional names of the acupuncture points rather than the numbers. "I'm just trying to find your Encircling Glory, Mrs Fanshaw.

What? You don't want a needle there? Well how about I stick it in your Abundant Splendour?" He was so successful that I had a go, but I had to stick the needles in my own hand to stop me from laughing.

There is evidence from scientific trials that acupuncture works for chronic back pain, toothache, nausea and vomiting, headache and arthritis. But the greatest power comes from the therapist, not the therapy, and if they get the giggles it all falls down. So if you want to use acupuncture, find someone who can keep a straight face Phil Hammond is a GP and chair of governors at a primary school in Somer-set. He has also appeared as a panelist on Have I Got News for You? on BBC1


Raylene Collyer, who co-ordinates citizenship and PSHE at the Harris Academy in Bermondsey, south-east London, first tried the ancient Chinese treatment in 2000 because she needed to relax and says: "I found it so powerful that I started to have it on a regular basis."

Today Raylene is a qualified acupuncturist, is studying for an MA in nutrition and is also the school's head of health and social care.

"Teaching can be stressful when you are constantly under deadline and trying to chase coursework. There never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done," she says. "Some teachers do sport to relax, but for me acupuncture is the answer and it has long-lasting effects."

As well as embracing acupuncture, Raylene has also adopted dietary recommendations from Eastern medicine.

"At breakfast you should eat like a king, at lunch like a prince, and at supper like a pauper," she says. "It's the exact opposite to the way we eat in the Western world, but it transforms your energy levels."


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