Acupuncture, the ‘needle therapy’ is often used as an aid to help people quit smoking, but there is little evidence to suggest how it works. A study published in the journal Preventative Medicine in 2001, which focused on men and women who reported smoking around 20 cigarettes each day did conclude that acupuncture could help motivated smokers to reduce their smoking or even quit, and the effect seemed to last for up to five years. However, this study was small scale and has not been backed up by bigger trials.
The British Acupuncture Council themselves admit that their evidence for acupuncture helping people stop smoking ‘is not that great.’ Acupuncture is widely used to treat asthma, but there is no hard proof that it makes a real difference either.
According to Oriental belief, acupuncture works by channelling a vital force of energy around the body. The Western view is more practical. “The best explanation for why it works is that the needles stimulate peripheral nerves in the tissue which then send impulses to the central nervous system. These impulses activate centres in the brain which change the way we perceive pain or discomfort,” says
Dr Mike Cummings, medical director of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, who trained as a GP
He believes the acupuncture is slowly being accepted into the mainstream of healthcare. “I think acupuncture should be more widely available on the NHS, but only where it has been shown to have definite benefits.”
At the moment, acupuncture is only available on the NHS in areas where local primary care trusts decide to fund the service. A Department of Health spokeswoman says: “The government appreciates that many people find different complementary medicines such as acupuncture, helpful in alleviating symptoms of certain illnesses, especially those for which orthodox medicine does not seem to have a complete answer. As a result, some complementary medicine can be made available on the NHS is local NHS clinicians and commissioning organisations such as primary care trusts are convinced that it will be a clinical and cost-effective use of resources.”
According to the British Acupuncture Council, the main regulatory body, around 10 per cent of GPs currently refer patients on to acupuncturists. Many more, however, would take the opportunity if the funds were there. Dominique Joire, the director of the Gateway Clinic in Lambeth, a specialist NHS acupuncture clinic, says that some patients have had to wait up to six months for treatment. “People are less sceptical than they used to be and they want to try something different. GPs are also more ready to refer patients to us as a first port of call, not a last resort.” The centre, which is funded by Lambeth Primary Care Trust, treats 400 patients every week.
Whether they go private or NHS, patients should always ensure that they are being treated by a registered practitioner. Most acupuncture sessions are provided by specialists without other medical qualifications but physiotherapists now learn the basic principles of acupuncture as part of their undergraduate training. Trained GPs, doctors and nurses can also carry out acupuncture. “Always ask to see someone’s qualification and check that they are a member of a recognised professional body,” says Dr Cummings. “Acupuncture is safe but it needs to be carried out by someone who knows what they are doing.”