Pains and needles

Once thought of as a quack treatment, acupuncture is now available for some on the NHS

When Vanessa Cox Pendray developed osteoarthritis in her neck following an injury, moving her head became extremely painful and restricted. As a textile designer and later a ceramic artist, it was especially hard for her to cope.

“I’m a creative person with lots of life in me but some days I couldn’t get out of bed. Conventional treatments weren’t really helping which was depressing,” she says.

Cox Pendray’s “release”, as she describes it, came in the form of acupuncture – the practice of inserting and manipulating fine needles into specific points on the body. Acupuncture is increasingly being used to relieve symptoms of degenerative and inflammatory arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions.

“It’s given me lift-off again,” enthuses the 65-year-old from Ware, Hertfordshire. “I work, have completed a master’s degree, and can dance, which I love to do. I have the treatment ‘topped up’ and pains that have started to come back again recede.”

Lavinia Dionisio, 76, of Chiswick, west London, turned to acupuncture after 18 years of pain and stiffness in joints in her body.

“Some parts of my body are now pain free and my movement has also improved,” she says. “I used to crawl upstairs but can now go up normally. I take only a small dose of anti-inflammatory drugs which used to cause side effects like an upset stomach and hair loss.”

Based on principles of Chinese medicine dating back almost 2,000 years, acupuncture aims to correct imbalances of energy flow in the body. It is thought to relieve pain by diverting or changing sensations sent to the brain and stimulating the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals such as endorphins.

Typically, a course of six to eight weekly sessions lasting up to 30 minutes each is required for pain relief. Once relief is achieved it can last for several months.

Acupuncture has its detractors and it is widely acknowledged that further research is needed into its efficacy as an arthritis treatment, but a growing collection of evidence-based clinical research is lending weight to practitioners’ claims.

This has prompted rationing organisation the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to give NHS patients with chronic lower back pain the right to free acupuncture. Acupuncture on the NHS is also becoming more available for patients with knee osteoarthritis through pain clinics, physiotherapy departments or GPs.

The St Albans and Harpenden Acupuncture Knee Clinic, the only clinic of its kind in the UK, offers nurse-led sessions for patients with knee osteoarthritis as an alternative to knee replacement surgery. All are originally referred by their GP.

Marion Richardson, an acupuncturist and lecturer who set up the service with GP Dr Jonathan Freedman, explains: “Of 165 patients seen over three years, about half have had their pain and disability levels reduced long term and haven’t sought referral for surgery.”

The team says cost savings made through the project are currently being evaluated but are “considerable”.

Vast numbers of sufferers will, however, still have to pay for acupuncture, according to Dr Mike Cummings, medical director of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, a nationwide group of doctors and health professionals who use the therapy alongside more conventional techniques.

He says: “Services are patchy. In some areas access is easy while, in others, there’s no chance. Although people argue over aspects of acupuncture, research overall looks good and I think access would have expanded further in the past few years if not for difficulties around funding.”

Because acupuncture focuses on the individual and not the illness, practitioners advocate it as especially beneficial to older people’s broader wellbeing.

Acupuncturist Maureen Cromey, who practises in Chiswick and Harley Street, says: “Chinese medicine is gentle and reverent towards people who are ageing and is geared towards supporting and caring for them.”

Charity Arthritis Research UK recently announced a trial at the University of York to investigate the effectiveness of acupuncture in easing chronic neck pain.

A spokeswoman says: “Acupuncture is among therapies we’re looking at for our forthcoming authoritative report on complementary therapies for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and back pain.”

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