Acupuncture and Pain Relief – How does it work?

One of the most common conversations I have in clinic with my patients goes like this –

‘So how does this acupuncture on my knee actually work’
– ‘Well would you like the traditional explanation or the modern medical explanation?’
– ‘Both!’

Well the modern view looks at how acupuncture affects the nervous system. The nerves should react to a needle and give you that dull tingling associated with acupuncture. When stimulated they send a message to the spinal cord causing a release of dynorphin and enkephalin, (opioid peptides like endorphin). These in turn help the release of various neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonine and norepinephrine – and it is these that are thought to interfere with the pain pathways and trigger a general endorphin release in the brain. That might explain the mild euphoria some people feel after a strong acupuncture session. We also see a local improvement in circulation round the needles – an increase in blood and therefore oxygen to painful tissues and this in itself can be very beneficial. A natural pain killer is also released called adenosine which will affect the local tissues. There are several other theories and no-one seems to be 100% sure about the exact physiological mechanism, so hopefully further research will clarify the issue. However from my point of view I can understand how the research explains short term pain relief – immediately after needling, but good acupuncture can give you several days of pain relief after each visit. It’s effects appear accumulative and we aim to extend the period of relief with each visit – most of the pain conditions I see resolve to the point they only need acupuncture once of twice a year if at all.

The traditional Chinese model of pain relief through acupuncture is using the system of Qi flowing in meridians. When you look at a map of these meridians it looks similar to a image of major nerves – long strips that cover the body with branches that interlink. When the Qi runs smoothly we feel light and buoyant. When the Qi gets stuck or slow moving we start to feel pain. A dull achy pain would be the Qi struggling to move freely. A sharp acute pain would indicate the Qi was so impeded that it was affecting the blood and fluids nearby. An acupuncturist will look at the site of pain and where it radiates to and decide which meridians are involved. They then will needle along that meridian and any others that have nearby branches – to give the Qi a kick start in moving on – ‘Go on clear off!’ The dull tingling sensation is visualised as the Qi reaching up and grabbing the needle. Some of the meridians are pretty complicated in their trajectory – and it is for this reason that your acupuncturist sometimes needles a point on the body that appears to be unrelated to the site of pain.

Whichever explanation you prefer, as long as it works – that’s the important thing right! Every Thursday I run a community acupuncture clinic at Exchange Street, Norwich, which provides low cost acupuncture for pain relief. It’s still difficult to get acupuncture on the NHS in Norfolk so this is somewhere in the middle. Yes it’s private still, but you are sharing the treatment space with others  – like a ward so the cost is greatly lowered (£15 with GP referral).




Electo-acupuncture in Norwich

Electro-acupuncture around the knee

Electro-acupuncture was first used around 1940-1950’s and has rapidly spread in popularity. I use it for pain related conditions – sciatica, lower back pain and arthritic knees to give some examples. The feeling of receiving electro-acupuncture is difficult to describe. My patients’ have called it ‘tapping’, ‘buzzing’ and ‘like a mobile phone vibrating next to the skin’. Regardless of how you perceive the sensation, it should always be at a level low enough to allow you to drift off while the needles and electricity do their job! Yes amazingly once it is on – you are left to relax  It is also used in fertility acupuncture on the lower abdomen to affect the tissues and blood supply. Although there is some debate as to which areas are to be avoided, many acupuncturists include electro-acupuncture on the head for neuralgia and similar disorders. My lovely mum allows me to use electro-acupuncture on her face regularly to help increase circulation to the facial skin – plumping it out and improving her complexion! Although I choose not to practice ‘facial rejuvenation’, there are several excellent acupuncturists in Norwich who do so it is something to consider before that face lift…..There are a few no-no’s for electro-acupuncture – Epilepsy and Pacemakers being the obvious, so make sure your therapist takes a full case history before plugging you in.

The Norwich Natural Fertility Partnership

The Norwich Natural Fertility Partnership (NNFP)  is a collaboration between Kate McDougall – acupuncturist and Charlotte Evans – homeopath. Both have enjoyed success individually in the natural fertility field and have joined forces to provide an alternate path to IVF.

Sometimes IVF is the best way forward due to underlying complications in either partner, however often a couple are given no medical explanation in their struggle to conceive. NNFP is a different choice to assisted reproductive techniques (ART) whereby various complementary therapies are used in conjunction with one another to help each woman achieve her full fertility potential.

We work closely with each client – seeing them once, sometimes twice a week in 3 month blocks. As well as providing regular acupuncture and homeopathy, the programme depends on the willingness of each woman to implement change in her life – through diet, lifestyle and emotional well being. Since no two women are the same it stands to reason that no two women will receive exactly the same course of treatment through NNFP. Some may benefit from learning fertility awareness with Charlotte and decide to proceed with mineral hair analysis. Others may benefit from acupuncture targeted just prior to expected ovulation combined with homeopathy.

The Norwich Natural Fertility Partnership was formed in response to the demands from our previous clients. They asked for a comprehensive model of care that addressed all factors impacting on their fertility. They asked for greater communication between their individual therapists and they asked for a fertility plan that worked in harmony with their bodies rather than a simple shut down to control their reproductive hormones.

We believe every woman has the potential to carry a healthy baby to full term. Our aim is to help our clients achieve this dream.

The Norwich Natural Fertility Partnership runs from The Complementary Health Care Clinic, 34 Exchange Street, Norwich, 01603 665173.




Does Acupuncture help you conceive? Results from 18 months of fertility acupuncture in Norwich

Here is a summary of the outcomes of female fertility clients seen in the last 18 months.

All maintained terms of treatment – regular acupuncture 2-3 times per month for up to 12 months.
All were with partners whose sperm sample came back within normal range.

The women themselves had a variety of underlying conditions – mainly hormone imbalances such as those found in PCOS, raised FSH and low AMH levels suggesting ovarian reserve was low. Some women were simply non-specified subfertile. Included are women who may have unsuccessfully undergone IVF treatment previously

None had been diagnosed with a blockage in either oviduct.

None were also using Clomid at time of acupuncture.


                                           Pregnancy rate           No pregnancy          Miscarriage rate
Women aged 35 and under               100%                            0%                             0%*
Women aged 36 and over                    50%                           50%                            0%*

*as far as is known. Most women continue with acupuncture throughout the 1st trimester.

Length of acupuncture treatment before positive pregnancy test ranged from 2 – 10 months.
Not included in this sample are women who started acupuncture but choose to discontinue for unknown reasons.

So the results look promising! I notice that the common link between all the woman who do fall pregnant whilst using acupuncture is their long term commitment to changing the environment within their body – They implement lifestyle and dietary changes that I suggest, they observe the changes in their menstruation and they stick to the regular acupuncture sessions. In short they take charge of their fertility and it is them – not the acupuncture who ultimately are responsible for their positive result.

Acupuncture and Womens’ Health

Women often first visit me with their chief complaint being pain around the time of menstruation. Most of us accept a small amount of tension in the lower abdomen as normal and can even welcome mild uterine cramping as a signal that the body is working as it should, ready to release a build-up of emotional and physical tension. However for some women the pain is unbearable – and often is due to underlying gynaecological factors. Primary dysmenorrhea – (pain with no underlying complications) is often helped by combining gentle exercise and a couple of acupuncture sessions in the 12 days leading up to the onset of bleeding. The women I see often report an easing of other premenstrual related issues such as headaches and heavy limbs.

Most commonly the past year I have seen women suffering with endometriosis which can cause pelvic pain throughout the cycle but particularly bad at ovulation and menstruation. I often see women frustrated and exhausted after finding the conventional approach of contraceptive pills and pain killers is simply not providing relief. Regular acupuncture sessions combined with dietary advice can yield fantastic results in a very short time. I tend to needle points on the lower abdomen, using an infra red heat lamp overhead to warm and relax the tissues – often there is immediate relief as the circulation is improved and local parasympathetic activity encouraged.

The third most common type of pelvic pain I see in the acupuncture clinic – is symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD), often triggered in late pregnancy. Very few needles are inserted into the fleshy parts of the hips and legs to affecting the pelvic girdle nerves.

Chinese medicine has a long history of addressing women’s health issues – encouraging us to use each menstruation as a guide to our inner wellbeing and overall health. For an acupuncturist each cycle gives a summary of how a woman has lived her life in the previous weeks, a reflection of both physical and emotional activities. It really is an incredible tool to for the physician to use in understanding each woman as unique – as each cycle can vary wildly in its nature from month to month.

Acupuncture can be used safely alongside conventional medicine and poses very few side effects. If you are considering acupuncture arrange to discuss with Kate or your GP as to whether it is suitable for your condition.