Acupuncture is a type of complementary medicine in which fine needles are inserted into the skin along what are thought to be lines of energy. The treatment is derived from ancient Chinese practice and is still widely used today, including within many NHS general practices and the majority of pain clinics and hospices throughout the UK.
It is thought that acupuncture helps to stimulate sensory nerves under the skin and within muscles, which then causes the body to produce natural substances, including pain-relieving endorphins. As such, acupuncture is often used as a treatment for those suffering from migraines and chronic tension-type headaches, anxiety, joint pain, dental pain, chronic pain, infertility and post-operative pain.
Acupuncture can also act on parts of the brain known for reducing sensitivity to stress and help promote relaxation and research has shown that acupuncture treatment may specifically benefit anxiety disorders and symptoms of anxiety and stress by:
- Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry
- Regulating levels of neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, GABA, neuropeptide Y and ACTH; hence altering the brain’s mood chemistry to help to combat negative affective states
- Stimulating production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervous system. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response;
- Reversing pathological changes in levels of inflammatory cytokines that are associated with stress reactions.
Acupuncture is also well know for combatting other PTSD and C-PTSD symptoms such as sore joints, painful muscles, lack of energy, and disrupted sleep.
One randomised controlled study of active duty US military service personnel in 2014 found that acupuncture could help to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, reduce pain, and improve mental and physical health functioning. They discovered that those who combined acupuncture with other kinds of treatments had a significantly better outcome than those who only received the usual care.
Researchers from the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Chengdu Military General Hospital conducted a similar study with people suffering from PTSD due to earthquakes. Examining 138 patients, they found that acupuncture was more effective than Paroxetine for its relief of PTSD symptoms, and it also helped reduce anxiety and depression in sufferers too.
Furthermore, a review that looked at the effects of combining brief psychological exposure with the manual stimulation of acupuncture points found evidence that this can quickly and permanently reduce fear responses to traumatic memories and related cues.
Acupuncture is a safe, non-stigmatising and therapeutic treatment that has proven to be effective in reducing PTSD and C-PTSD symptoms. Not everyone will always see the benefit of all therapies as treatment options vary for each person so they are best discussed on a one-to-one basis with a GP or medical professional. However, options such as acupuncture provide a drug-free, therapeutic option to explore with huge potential for positive results. It is a great option to utilise while waiting for treatment, and also in addition in between treatment and therapy sessions.
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD or C-PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
Engel, Charles C., Elizabeth H. Cordova, David M. Benedek, Xian Liu, Kristie L. Gore, Christine Goertz, Michael C. Freed, Cindy Crawford, Wayne B. Jonas, and Robert J. Ursano. "Randomized Effectiveness Trial of a Brief Course of Acupuncture for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder." Medical care 52 (2014): S57-S64.
- Kim YD et al. Acupuncture for posttraumatic stress disorder: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials and prospective clinical trials. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; 2013: 615857.
- Feinstein D. Rapid treatment of PTSD: why psychological exposure with acupoint tapping may be effective. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2010; 47(3): 385-402.
- Wang Y et al. Clinical studies on treatment of earthquake-caused posttraumatic stress disorder using electroacupuncture. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012; 2012: 431279.
- Zhang Y et al. Clinical study on treatment of the earthquake-caused post-traumatic stress disorder by cognitive-behavior therapy and acupoint stimulation. J Tradit Chin Med. 2011; 31(1): 60-3.
- Eisenlohr V et al. Acupuncture - A new option in the therapy of traumatized German soldiers? Deutsche Zeitschrift fur Akupunktur 2012; 53 (2): 29-34
- Hollifield M et al. Acupuncture for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled pilot trial. J Nerv Ment Dis 2007; 195: 504-13.
- Hui KK et al. Acupuncture, the limbic system, and the anticorrelated networks of the brain. Auton Neurosci. 2010; 157(1-2): 81-90.
- Acupuncture For Military PTSD Found Effective
- British Acupuncture Council
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It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
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