For as long as I remember my mum has taken an interest in alternative health treatments, but I was still taken aback when she came home one day and announced she had booked an appointment with an acupuncturist to receive treatment for a painful knee. The result was a cure for a condition that had troubled her for years. Even more amazing was my husband agreeing two decades later to a course of acupuncture to treat a digestive problem. Here was a man who had abandoned me briefly during child birth because he could not stand the sight of needles, agreeing to have untold quantities of them stuck into his abdomen!

So, what exactly is acupuncture? Like many alternative therapies it has its roots in China where it has been practised for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the second half of last century that it became popular in the western world. An American journalist had to have his appendix removed during a visit to China and his pain following surgery was treated with acupuncture. He later went on to publish an article about his experiences.

Traditional Chinese medicine regards good health as the result of a harmonious balance of yin and yan – the complementary extremes of the life force known as qi or chi – and illness is the consequence of an imbalance of these forces. Qi flows through meridians (pathways) in the human body which can be accessed through 350 acupuncture points. And when needles are inserted into these points with appropriate combinations, the energy flow is brought back into proper balance.

In Western societies acupuncture points are described as places where nerves, muscles and connective tissue can be stimulated. This stimulation increases blood flow while at the same time triggering the activity of our own body’s natural painkillers.

Acupuncture generally involves several weekly or fortnightly treatments, consisting of up to 12 sessions. During a typical treatment the patient lies down and very thin needles are inserted through the skin to various depths at specific points on the body. As each needle is inserted the patient should be aware of them, but initially without pain. However, when the needle reaches the right depth a deep aching sensation occurs. Once inserted, the needles remain there for about twenty minutes and are sometimes heated or stimulated with electricity.

Although some studies have revealed that not all conditions benefit from treatment by acupuncture, a growing number of doctors are embracing it and it is generally accepted that acupuncture can be effective in treating the following conditions: low back pain, migraines, post-operative dental pain, hypertension, osteoarthritis and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.