Acupuncture goes mainstream

The Observer

London: Judith Ritchie slowly eases a fine steel needle into the back of her patient at a point marked out in felt-tip ink. As the needle is gently tapped, Judith explains: “This point lies over the organ I want to strengthen, her liver. I want to improve the quality of her blood and her yin, which affects the energy balance.’ Acupuncture relies on a different language and different tools from western medicine, but however strange it seems at first,this patient, Louise Shelver, is a convert. For years she has had debilitating migraines and premenstrual tension. This weekend a new study reveals for the first time that it provokes a specific response in the brain, shedding light on how it might affect the body’s pain pathways. This helps to explain why both patients and health professionals trained in western medicine are increasingly turning to this ancient form of Chinese healing. Ritchie is a qualified children’s nurse who has spent the last nine months learning this complementary therapy.

The latest study is from researchers at Southampton University and University College London, who devised a clever trial to determine whether acupuncture worked by carrying out brain scans on patients receiving it. The patients, all with painful osteoarthritis in their thumbs, were divided into three groups. The first group were touched by blunt needles which did not pierce the skin and had no therapeutic value. The second had “sham acupuncture” they believed was real. Their scans showed that one area of the brain associated with the production of natural opiates lit up. In the third group, who received real acupuncture, the scans showed that, as well as the opiate centre, another region of the brain, the ipsilateral insular, was activated. This region appears to be involved in pain modulation. Acupuncturists believe there are 12 energy pathways in the body, each associated with a different organ, and the treatment reestablishes the energy balance in organs. To treat an illness, practitioners take a full view of the patient, asking how their body functions, about their character and even their childhood. Treatment is varied accordingly. Fine needles are inserted into different points, either to stimulate or reduce the flow of energy along pathways.

It is said to work for an increasing number of conditions. Its worth for depression, migraines, chronic pain, rheumatism, eczema, multiple sclerosis and high blood pressure has been subjected to clinical studies. Yet a growing number of patients have it simply because they say that acupuncture makes them feel happier and more fulfilled. The patients’ profile is also changing. Gwyneth Paltrow and Cherie Blair are at the celebrity end of the scale, but patients as retired firefighter John Thurston (79) show how widespread acceptance of the therapy has become.