Acupuncture as a healthcare treatment for chronic pain
As a result of significant scientific evidence, acupuncture is known to be an effective treatment for chronic pain, aiding recovery, and therefore positively influencing treatment outcomes. It is used to treat pain that results from conditions such as arthritis, trauma related to an accident or surgery or inactive or sedentary lifestyles. Throughout the years, however, it has been grouped together with alternative or complementary therapies, often referred to unflatteringly as ‘pseudoscience’, which has created some hurdles in losing its ‘sandals and candles’ image.
A significant development in overcoming these hurdles was an update to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines for chronic pain patients in April 2021. The updated guidelines now mean that trained clinicians within both the NHS and private practice may utilise acupuncture as part of their treatment plan to reduce pain.
There are two main groups that practise acupuncture; those who have included acupuncture as part of Chinese Traditional Medicine studies; and those who have completed three years of Western medical studies and have included acupuncture as part of post-graduate study – with physiotherapists being the largest group of medical professionals in the UK providing acupuncture treatment.
The AACP represents Chartered Physiotherapists who have full medical training and have worked for at least one year in a clinical setting. Subsequent acupuncture learning consists of 300 hours of theoretical and practical studies and assessment, and the AACP ensures its members conduct regular CPD to keep up-to-speed with the latest developments.
The technology behind acupuncture
Acupuncture utilises and promotes the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals including endorphins, noradrenalin, and serotonin. The effect is instigated by inserting acupuncture needles into specific points on the body which stimulate a number of physiological mechanisms within the central nervous system and local peripheral tissues.
Additionally, functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have confirmed the effect on the pain pathway to the brain. Data suggests that acupuncture triggers a sequence of events involving the release of endogenous opioid-like substances. With opioids being one of the strongest painkillers available for treatment, and one of the most addictive, reducing dependency on external interventions (i.e. pills or injections) can lead to a more sustainable, consistent treatment plan.
Acupuncture enables clinicians to utilise a therapy which has virtually no side effects or adverse reactions and can be implemented in the majority of individual treatment plans, given it has very few contra-indications in regard to its use. Acupuncture can therefore be an invaluable adjunct to a physiotherapist’s toolkit with patients often experiencing immediate results, with positive influences on their overall health and wellbeing.
Modern developments in laser technology and acupuncture
Acupuncture can be a challenge in the mindset of those with a fear of needles, even though the needle’s width is similar to that of a human hair. To that end, the latest innovation is the ‘needle-less’ method of administering acupuncture treatment – Cold Laser, also called Soft Laser or Biostimulation Laser.
Cold Laser speeds up the normal biological process with a triple effect: it has a bio-electrical effect, which accelerates the membrane exchange; a photochemical effect, which increases the energy potential of the cell; and a biophysical effect, which creates a resonance with own emission. The laser energy enables the intracellular production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the biological energy source, and thereby mobilise transcription systems, which revitalise protein synthesis, increase diffusion of molecules involved in inflammatory neuromediators and promote cellular oxygenation.
What this means is that Cold Laser therapy allows for increased biostimulation, which is vital for the regulation of nerve impulse emission, which in turn helps decrease pain and inflammation. It also provides energy to the chromophores, increasing protein synthesis, as well as increasing collagen production, which accelerates overall healing.
This method of acupuncture is proven in the treatment of wound healing, tuberculosis, tinnitus, epicondylitis, achille tendinitis, back pain, plantar heel pain, Carpal tunnel syndrome and the primary Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Far reaching benefits of acupuncture as healthcare and laser technology
Across these varied conditions, and many others, chronic pain can be debilitating. Even the simplest tasks that most of us take for granted like walking the dog or even getting to sleep can cause excessive pain. It is vital that we continue to shed acupuncture’s undeserved ‘sandals and candles’ reputation and invest in, and promote technologies, such as Cold Laser, that enable it to be used more widely.
For physiotherapists, training in acupuncture offers skilled clinicians the opportunity to add to their skillset and knowledge, broadening their scope of practice and treatment offerings. This not only benefits their patients, but also enables them to treat a wider range of conditions, potentially increasing revenue, and employability success.
Byline by Paul Battersby, the Chief Executive Officer and Clinical Advisor at the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP).