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What’s The Alternative? New Research Suggests That Patients Are Keen To Explore Complementary Therapies In Preference To Prescription Painkillers

The results of a new consumer opinion poll*, released as part of the launch of Acupuncture Awareness Week [“Getting to the Point of it”] has shown that 70% of people would prefer to try a complementary therapy, such as acupuncture, before being prescribed a prescription painkiller – rising to 82% in those aged 35 and under.

Acupuncture Awareness Week is a national campaign, launched by the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), to highlight the benefits of traditional acupuncture. The campaign strives to raise the profile of acupuncture as a potential treatment option for a range of conditions, including chronic pain, headaches and migraines and mental health issues.

The new, nationwide survey commissioned by the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) comes as parallel research amongst practising acupuncturists in the UK shows that a staggering 86% of BAcC members said they had seen a patient in the past six months who was unable to ‘tolerate’ the NHS wait for treatment for their specific condition.

According to the research amongst its members, the British Acupuncture Council has seen an increase in the number of people enquiring about acupuncture to treat a range of conditions, since the start of the NHS post-covid backlog:

  • 72% noted a rise in enquiries about mental health issues such as anxiety and depression
  • 68% saw an increase in chronic pain
  • Over half (58%) reporting a rise in treatment for women’s health issues.

And, when set against the current backdrop of NHS waiting lists, the results from the wider, national opinion poll of over 2,000 people raise further concerns about access to healthcare. Over a third (36%) of those people questioned saying they would now be “more likely” than before to seek help from a private, complementary therapist.

Interestingly, almost a quarter (23%) said they would be willing to wait up to a week to see a GP for advice and treatment for a chronic condition, whilst 10% said they wouldn’t be willing to wait at all to seek medical help for ongoing pain.

Ian Appleyard, Research & Policy Manager at the British Acupuncture Council, comments; “For many years there was a lack of good quality research into acupuncture. This made it difficult for scientists to evaluate the potential benefits of acupuncture. The situation is beginning to change, high-quality large-scale clinical trials have been conducted into chronic pain. In 2017 these were combined in a systematic review by an international team of researchers, we can now be confident that those suffering from back pain, osteoarthritis and headache can benefit from a course of acupuncture [1].

 “Moreover, these benefits are not due simply to the placebo effect and last for a least a year. As more research is conducted the evidence-base for other conditions is growing. There is now evidence of a potential positive for conditions such as depression, irritable bowel syndrome, menopausal hot flushes, allegoric rhinitis, asthma and cancer related fatigue [2].”

Of those respondents in the national survey, who said they had previously been treated with acupuncture

  • 45% had used it for musculoskeletal problems,
  • A quarter (24%) said it was for chronic pain
  • One in 5 (21%) had been treated for migraine

The results from the new national survey also spark a conversation about many of the common misconceptions around the ancient treatment of traditional acupuncture – whilst also providing a positive platform and opportunity to unpick the myths.

Nearly a quarter of those questioned (23%) said they were concerned the treatment might hurt, with one in 5 (19%) saying a fear of needles would put them off acupuncture. In actual fact, the thinnest acupuncture needle is ¼ of the thickness of a standard hypodermic needle – about the thickness of the fullest human hair – and acupuncture is reported by many patients to be deeply relaxing.

Ian Appleyard explains; “Acupuncture has been shown to be a very safe intervention when given by a properly trained professional.  However, acupuncture is not statutorily regulated so anyone can become an acupuncturist.

“Therefore, it is important to know if your practitioner has been appropriately trained. The Professional Standards Authority for Health & Social Care (PSA) protects the public by overseeing the regulation and registration of healthcare professionals – including statutorily regulated professions, such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and Accredited Registers like the British Acupuncture Council – offering the public reassurance and a quality mark for high standards of training, safe practice and professional conduct.”

Currently NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) recommends acupuncture for treatment of primary chronic pain, tension type headaches and migraines. But acupuncture is also used by those with other musculoskeletal pain, digestive and women’s health issues and mental health conditions, with clinical evidence on its effectiveness emerging all the time. Acupuncture is occasionally available on the NHS, most often via a GP or physiotherapist, however NHS access is limited with most patients paying for it privately.

To find an acupuncturist and qualified BAcC member near you, please go to: https://acupuncture.org.uk/find-an-acupuncturist/

* an online survey was conducted by Atomik Research among 2005 adults aged 18+ in the UK. The research fieldwork took place between 27-30 January 2023.  Atomik Research is an independent creative market research agency that employs MRS-certified researchers and abides to MRS code.


[1] A.J. Vickers, E.A. Vertosick, G. Lewith, H. MacPherson, N.E. Foster, K.J. Sherman, D. Irnich, C.M. Witt, K. Linde, C. Acupuncture Trialists, Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis, J Pain 19(5) (2018) 455-474.

[2] J. McDonald, S. Janz, The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review, Australian Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine Association LTD, 2017.