GPs “should prescribe acupuncture for anxiety”

The British Acupuncture Council is calling on UK health care professionals to consider prescribing acupuncture for patients with anxiety. 

According to studies, acupuncture could be an effective treatment for the 1-30% of the global population which suffers from some sort of the condition.

“When the body is under stress, an area of the brain called the hypothalamus releases neurochemicals, and research shows that acupuncture can calm this response,” says Mark Bovey, head of research at the British Acupuncture Council.  

“Acupuncture has also been shown to increase the release of endorphins, the body’s own ‘feel-good’ chemicals, which play an important role in the regulation of physical and emotional stress responses such as pain, heart rate, blood pressure and digestive function. All of these acupuncture mechanisms have a direct effect on reducing anxiety. 

“At a time when the NHS is under such pressure, GPs and other healthcare professionals should be considering acupuncture as either an alternative or complementary treatment. The evidence is there to prove that it is effective.” 

In 2017, the Acupuncture Evidence Project, co-authored by Dr John McDonald PhD and Dr Stephen Janz, showed that acupuncture was moderately effective in treating anxiety.

The evidence included a 2016 systematic review, with more than 400 randomised patients, that concluded that “the effects from acupuncture for treating anxiety have been shown to be significant compared to conventional treatments”.

The largest of these studies, which included 120 randomised patients, found that acupuncture had a large effect on reducing anxiety and depression compared to conventional treatment involving pharmacological approaches and psychotherapy, with over twice the reduction in symptoms. 

A more recent systematic review published in 2018 found that all 13 included studies “reported an anxiety decrease for their treatment group relative to control groups.” Three of these studies used pharmaceuticals as controls. 

The British Acupuncture Council has been working with the charity Anxiety UK to gather anxiety outcomes data from patients having a course of six acupuncture treatments as in usual practice. Preliminary results on 30 patients indicate that the effectiveness is at least as good as that seen with psychological therapies such as CBT. 

A spokesperson for Anxiety UK said: ‘There is some evidence that acupuncture can help in the treatment of anxiety and, for some, can be an alternative option or indeed an addition to psychiatric medication and/or talking therapy. 

‘While medication, talking therapy or a combination of the two is the NICE recommended treatment for anxiety, for many people living with this condition, other/additional support options are welcomed. 

‘On this, Anxiety UK has offered its members access to traditional acupuncture – through its partnership with the British Acupuncture Council – since 2016 and while the sample is small we have achieved some promising, positive results.’ 

Acupuncture has also been effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a new study (6), researchers in Italy investigated the effects of acupuncture on the victims of a 6.0 earthquake that caused nearly 300 deaths and left 30,000 homeless in Amatrice, Central Italy. 

Treatments were performed by medical doctors who had at least three years’ clinical experience with acupuncture. Each subject received four 20-minute acupuncture treatments over consecutive days. Before the acupuncture treatment, more than 68% of the study participants reported having both pain and psychological symptoms that could be associated with PTSD. After the third treatment, both the pain and psychological symptom scores had significantly improved, with no serious adverse effects attributed to the treatment.   

In 2018, The British Acupuncture Council collaborated with Healthwatch Norfolk on an observational study which demonstrated very large improvements in the PTSD outcome measure, so much so that none of the patients were classed as still having PTSD after completing six sessions of acupuncture. 

Figures from NHS Digital show that the number of prescription drugs issued in England for conditions such as depression and anxiety, stood at 67.5 million in 2017 – almost double the number dispensed in 2008.  

There were similar increases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

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