What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of therapy in which fine needles are inserted into specific points on the body.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system by influencing the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. The resulting biochemical changes activate the body’s self-regulating systems, stimulating its natural healing abilities and promoting physical and emotional well-being.

Clinical trials suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as corticosteroids and may improve recovery in patients with acute facial palsy, either used alone or in combination with drug treatment. It is important to note, however, that most of the trials to date have been of poor quality, which allows only tentative conclusions to be reached.

Important note: Guidelines recommend that all patients diagnosed with Bell’s palsy should receive steroids within the first 72 hours of the onset of their symptoms. Acupuncture should not be seen as an alternative to steroids.

Acupuncture may help in the treatment of acute facial palsy by:

  • reducing inflammation
  • improving circulation
  • improving well-being and healing speed

Acupuncture may help in the treatment of synkinesis by:

  • releasing tight tissue, muscle and fascia
  • improving relaxation

Who should you see for acupuncture treatment?

In England, there is not statutory regulation of acupuncture, but acupuncturists are required to register with their local authority.

There are a number of acupuncture organisations in the UK that practitioners can join if they hold certain qualifications and agree to work according to certain codes of practice.

If you decide to have acupuncture, you can visit the websites of these organisations to find a qualified acupuncturist near you. The qualifications and codes of practice that they require of their members are also available on their websites.

These organisations include:

It is important to explain to your acupuncturist what you are trying to achieve through treatment – for example, reduction of localised muscle tightness due to synkinesis, or increase in nerve activity in acute facial palsy – as this may affect the treatment technique chosen.

What are the risks of acupuncture?

When conducted by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is safe. Two surveys conducted independently of each other and published in the British Medical Journal in 2001 concluded that the risk of a serious adverse reaction to acupuncture is less than one in 10,000. Mild, short-lasting side effects occur in around 7-11 per cent of patients.

These include:

  • pain where the needles puncture the skin
  • bleeding or bruising where the needles puncture the skin
  • drowsiness
  • worsening of preexisting symptoms
  • Serious complications from treatment, such as infections or damage to tissue, are extremely rare.

Who may not be able to have acupuncture?

Due to the slight risk of bleeding, people with bleeding disorders such as haemophilia (where blood is unable to clot) may not be able to have acupuncture. People who take medicines that prevent blood clotting, called anticoagulants, may not be able to have acupuncture. If you have a blood disorder or you are taking medicine that prevents blood clots, talk to your GP before you have acupuncture.

It is generally safe to have acupuncture when you are pregnant. Let your acupuncturist know if you are pregnant, because certain acupuncture points cannot be used safely during pregnancy.

Electroacupuncture is not recommended for patients with synkinesis.

Last reviewed: 08-02-2017    ||    Next review due: 08-02-2019