Acupuncture works – but it does so thanks to orthodox scientific principles and not because of the centuries-old Chinese philosophy on which it is based, a leading acupuncturist has said – on the day the British medical establishment adopted the technique.

Adrian White, editor-in-chief of the journal Acupuncture In Medicine, said the principles of acupuncture were firmly grounded in science. "You don't need Chinese philosophy either to make it work or to practise it."

His remarks, at a reception to mark the first venture into the world of alternative medicine by the BMJ Group, publishers of the British Medical Journal, ruffled feathers in the traditional acupuncture world.

The BMJ Group is taking over publication of Acupuncture In Medicine. It aims to build up an evidence base for acupuncture treatment and to help doctors practise it. Dr White, a clinical research fellow at the University of Plymouth and trained acupuncturist, said the public and doctors had a distorted view of acupuncture which had hindered its acceptance in medicine and its wider use in pain control after surgery, and in conditions ranging from nausea to arthritis.

"One of the major problems facing medical acupuncture is preconceived notions. The perception is that acupuncture is all about chi and meridians.

"In the past, it was easy for scientists to dismiss acupuncture as highly implausible when its workings were couched in these terms. But it becomes very plausible when explained in terms of neurophysiology. Unfortunately, the scientific approach just isn't as sexy."

Scientific evidence had been building for 30 years showing that acupuncture stimulated the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, releasing "feel good" chemicals such opioids and serotonin.

Research also showed that needles placed outside of the traditional meridians also had an impact. Studies comparing needles placed according to traditional teaching and those placed randomly have shown similar effects.

"Points don't have any magical properties. They are simply convenient locations to needle," Dr White said.

The mystery of Chinese philosophy in which acupuncture was shrouded acted as a deterrent to doctors. "They can easily learn to practise acupuncture safely and effectively after a short foundation course," he said.

Paul Robin, the chairman of the Acupuncture Society, which combines traditional and medical approaches, said: "Dr White is talking about a very limited form of acupuncture and trying to justify it scientifically. It is not the whole story. Using meridians to place the needles is very useful. The Chinese have mapped them out and they are linked to body organs, sometimes by nerves and sometimes by energy movements."

Mr Robin, who had nine years training, also dismissed the suggestion that a practitioner could learn the technique in days. "To become a full acupuncturist requires three years training and involves study of the meridians and Chinese philosophy," he said.

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