I have been practicing acupuncture for over 10 years and am a member of the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP). It is a requirement of your membership that you maintain your CPD and attend regular courses, so I thought I would share with you the experience of my latest training day.
I never suffer from headaches so you can imagine how surprised I was to wake early on a lovely sunny Saturday morning to a throbbing pain in the front of my head. It may have had something to do with the thought of struggling up to London and negotiating the underground or maybe it was just psychosomatic and “all in my head”. Either way, I “got my head” together and looked over some of the background to acupuncture and how it works: both from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) view and a western approach.
According to TCM, acupuncture works by correcting the flow of energy around your body. This energy is called qi or chi (pronounced chee) and flows through energy pathways called meridians, each of which correspond to an organ, e.g. the Bladder meridian or the Liver meridian. The analogy of water flowing through a stream has been used. If something blocks the flow of water, pressure may build up behind the blockage and run dry below. The purpose of acupuncture is to keep the stream flowing freely.
A more scientific western explanation for acupuncture exists due to the recent advances in the understanding of pain neurophysiology. The primary system affected by acupuncture is the nervous system. The acupuncture needles stimulate sensory nerves in the muscle and produce a dull aching sensation called De
Qi (the flow of energy referred to in TCM). Acupuncture has also been shown to produce certain biochemical’s in the body including enkephalin and endorphins which are your body’s own “opiates” and is also the reason that after acupuncture you may feel quite tired or just relaxed and calm.
Anyway, enough of the science bit: I arrived at Picadilly Circus and I hoped that having plucked myself from the depths of the underground, it would be a simple 5 minute walk to the venue. I now think the tutor was purposeful in his choice of location, as after half an hour of negotiating Saturday shoppers, dead ends and wrong turnings, I stumbled into the clinic proclaiming “its like Picadilly Circus out there.” I then took a seat and asked “has anybody got anything for a headache!” Of course the tutor looked at me and said “Ah…good, a model for my first demonstration!”
We began the course by looking at the common causes of headaches and categorising them depending on their frequency, type of pain and pattern of pain. Interestingly not all of them can be treated with acupuncture. An example of three that we covered on the course included: Chronic Daily headache which affects up to 5% of the population. It can last for up to 4 hours, occur daily or near daily, be caused by lifestyle (posture, stress) head injury, addiction or dehydration and is generally located in the frontal head region. A Tension Type headache affects 50% of the population, is acute but not disabling and intermittent. The pain is described as a tight pressure, like a band around the top part of the head. Acupuncture in this case can be used to treat the stress as well as the pain!
The third type is a Migraine headache which is described as a throbbing/intense pain which can spread to the neck and also cause visual disturbances and nausea.
With the theory out the way, I immediately self diagnosed my headache as a Tension Type headache and was glad that I had unwittingly offered my head as a pin cushion for the first practical demonstration. So after a welcomed coffee break (and lovely homemade carrot cake), I jumped onto the plinth and hoped to be cured.
Now the fun part: there are over 360 acupuncture points on the body, how do you decide which points to use?
Firstly, you can choose meridians that pass over the area you are aiming to treat, in this case, the head and neck. The first point chosen in this demonstration was called GV 20 which won’t mean a lot if you don’t know much about acupuncture points. However, acupuncture points often have poetic names that have developed over the course of centuries and are often very descriptive to their purpose. This point is called ‘hundred meetings’ and is directly on top of the head and is often used along side 4 other points which surround it and are called the 4 advisors! So already I had 5 needles in my head. I didn’t feel the chi sensation I mentioned earlier as there are less sensory fibres to stimulate on the head but the points work to ‘calm the spirit and pacify the mind’. What with the carrot cake I had just eaten, I was well on the way to being cured!
Other points that can be used in acupuncture are more distal to the problem area. In this case, a point in the foot was chosen. These distal points in the hands and feet are very powerful as they have a large representation in the sensory cortex and you will often feel the chi sensation more readily.
Other factors that may need to be addressed when treating headaches are trigger points. These occur within the musculoskeletal system and can refer pain to the head and neck area. The needles work to ‘desensitise’ the muscle and therefore reduce tightness and muscle tension. These trigger points often relate to actual acupuncture points but not always. The idea is that you palpate the muscle (which is causing the pain), locate the area which is tender and insert the needle. In this case, a point in the right side of my neck was identified as being ‘active’ and another needle inserted… Ouch I felt that one!
Usually you would leave the needles in situ for about 25 minutes, but with so much to get through, my 5 minutes of fame was over and the needles removed. However, my head did feel much ‘lighter’ and with renewed energy
I spent the rest of the day sticking needles in various parts of other people’s anatomy.
So with the course coming to an end, all the carrot cake gone and equipped with new ideas and skills to take with me, the only headache I had to deal with was the long train ride home.
Anna Marie Hiscock