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Acupuncture and Acupressure: How Effective are these two Aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine?

From its beginnings in China several thousand years ago traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has spread around the world. Although Chinese herbal remedies are becoming popular in the West, the branch of TCM that most people are familiar with is acupuncture and its needle-less counterpart, acupressure.

There are basically two models for explaining and practicing acupuncture and acupressure. The traditional model proposes that by placing needles in appropriate points on the body (or applying pressure), energy flow throughout the body can be regulated. Acupuncture points have been likened to lock gates controlling the flow of water through canals (the canals being the meridians – hypothetical channels through which the energy flows). Since disease is seen as the result of a blockage of or an imbalance in energy, then regulating or re-balancing the energy should improve the patient’s condition.

Western theories of acupuncture and acupressure are based on current understanding of physiology and empirical evidence. One theory suggests that stimulation of acupoints results in the production of endorphins in the brain. These are the body’s own pain killers and relaxants (they act in a similar way to morphine). It has also been found that stimulation of acupoints encourages muscle relaxation and the production of anti-inflammatory compounds in tissue local to the acupoint.

What is Acupuncture (and Acupressure) Useful for?

There have been claims that acupuncture can cure almost any ailment. Needless to say this isn’t true. However there is growing evidence for its effectiveness in a number of conditions. Some of these have been subject to scrutiny by the Cochrane Collaboration. This is an international non – profit making organization that examines scientific studies in attempt to determine the most effective healthcare treatments.

Back Pain

In a review of thirty five randomized controlled trials on low back pain by AD Furlan et al (1999) for Cochrane, the authors found that acupuncture and dry-needling (inserting needles into trigger points), were more effective than no treatment. Both were also found to be useful in combination with other therapies.

Nausea and Vomiting

Another review for Cochrane looked at the effects of acupressure in early pregnancy nausea and vomiting. The authors found that acupressure wrist bands may well be helpful in providing relief. A separate study of twenty six trials found that wrist acupuncture was effective in relieving post – operative nausea and vomiting.


A German study by F. Flachskamp reported in heartwire ( June 2007) found that acupuncture had some effect in mild to moderate hypertension. However another study for the Stop Hypertension by Acupuncture Research Program by E A Macklin in 2007, suggested that acupuncture was no more effective than sham acupuncture. Clearly more research is needed.

Acupuncture and acupressure are said to be effective for numerous painful conditions and some whose main symptom is not pain such as irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and some skin problems. The big problem is that although there are many studies on acupuncture, there are too few well conducted trials with many conditions to say conclusively whether it works or not. The anecdotal evidence is interesting, and given that acupuncture is safe and has very few side-effects, there are likely to be many more studies looking at the efficacy of this branch of TCM.

This article is intended for information only. If you have any health concerns you should consult the appropriate professional.