What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese system of healing that is now very popular in the West as a so-called alternative therapy or complementary medicine system.
Acupuncture involves the use of very fine needles inserted into the skin at certain points on the body which are believed to be situated on energy channels called meridians. Each meridian is said to relate to a specific organ of the body. The insertion of the needles is said to unblock the channels thus allowing energy to move freely. This is believed to help restore balance to the body.
About acupuncture needles
There are several types of acupuncture needles. In ancient China, 9 different types of acupuncture needle were used. Today, the most commonly used needle is the metal filiform (thread-like) needle that is made from stainless steel. Very occasionally, silver or gold needles are used.
Acupuncture needles come in different gauges (diameter) and lengths to be used on the different areas of the body where they are to be inserted. The needles used nowadays are mostly very fine — they vary from 0.12 mm to 0.35 mm in diameter. Chinese acupuncture techniques tend to use thicker needles than Japanese techniques.
Are acupuncture needles safe?
The majority of needles used today in Australia are pre-sterilised, single use, disposable types. They are manufactured and packed under sterile conditions into foil-backed blister packs with plastic guide tubes.
The most commonly used needles are made of stainless steel and range in length from 8 mm to 7 cm. They are usually inserted 2.3 mm to 2.5 cm into the body. Acupuncture needles are covered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s Good Manufacturing Practice legislation in Australia.
How long are the needles left in for?
Acupuncture needles can be left in for any length of time between a few seconds and half an hour or so. The acupuncturist may twist or lightly flick the needles during this time. Some specialised very small, short needles can be left in for a few days.
Specialised acupuncture needles
Apart from filiform needles, there are a number of specialised needle types that may be used for specific conditions. Here are some types of specialised needle.
This is a thick needle with a round handle and a triangular body and a very sharp tip. It looks like a lance. The three-edged needle is used to puncture specific acupuncture points with the aim of removing a few drops of blood.
Plum blossom needle
This is also called a seven star needle and is actually a group of seven filiform needles arranged together in the shape of a flower and attached like a hammer head to a long handle. The handle is often flexible. Some types are disposable — others have a detachable head for sterilising. The needling is done by tapping the needles on the skin lightly and swiftly. The plum blossom needle can be tapped along a channel or at specific points.
These are very thin, very short needles that are used on specific points, often the ears (auricular acupuncture). Inserted to a very shallow depth in the skin (1-3 mm), these needles are left in place and covered with waterproof tape. They are often used to treat chronic pain and addictions.
These are used in treatments where the needles need to be left in for extended periods of time (usually one to 3 days) because prolonged stimulation of a point is needed. They are very small needles (1-3 mm long) that are ‘pressed’ onto the point and are held in place with a small, sterile surgical adhesive patch. At the base of the needle, the metal forms a spiral loop, stopping the needle from being pushed too far into the body. They are often used for acupuncture of the external ear. If you are treated with indwelling needles, care should be taken so that dirt does not collect under or around the tape.
Ear seeds, ‘press seeds’ and ‘pellets’
Although they aren’t needles, ear seeds, ‘press seeds’ and ‘pellets’ are all tiny, round objects that are taped to the acupuncture point — often on the ear — to give ongoing acupressure. They do not penetrate the skin.
Sometimes the wearer is instructed to press or gently stimulate the object a few times a day. Some of these objects are also magnetic. Press seeds are often small seeds of a type of Vaccaria plant — the seeds of the plant have natural irritant properties.
2. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine [website]. Acupuncture: an introduction (published 2007, Dec). Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/introduction.htm (Accessed 2010, Feb 18)
3. Sierpina VS, Frenkel MA. Acupuncture: a clinical review. South Med J 2005; 98(3): 330-7. Available at: http://journals.lww.com/smajournalonline/pages/results.aspx?k=acupuncture:%20a%20clinical%20review&Scope=AllIssues&txtKeywords=acupuncture:%20a%20clinical%20review