Health: `So, you don't want a needle there? Why don't I stick it in your Abundant Splendour?'

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Dr Paul Cronin took a weekend course in acupuncture and was delighted to discover a quick and easy alternative medicine." So proclaims an article in GP magazine, accompanied by a stunning photo of Dr Cronin all in beige and armed with a stick of the common mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). This is apparently ignited and used for moxibustion - the warming of acupoints to strengthen the body's Qi in conditions characterised by coldness and deficiency. Fascinating stuff but I couldn't help pondering whether a weekend is enough to learn the lingo, master the mugwort and suss out the where, how and why of magico-religious needle sticking.

To be fair, Dr Cronin wanted two weeks in Peking, but he couldn't get the time off so he made do with a British "taster" courtesy of "Aagh" or (wait for it) Active Acupuncturists in General Practise and Hospitals. As Dr C. observed, possibly not for the first time, "Aagh might be what you expect to hear from a patient when you stick a three-inch needle in them." The lectures were "a little rushed and didn't pretend to teach the essence of traditional chinese medicine in a weekend", but this was to allow plenty of needle time. "A large part of the problem is having the confidence to thrust the needles through the skin, though it will probably seem easier with a patient than trying to needle oneself." You don't say.

The participants found that needle entry was usually painless, but the consequent renewal of Qi (energy) ranged from numbness to throbbing to "something strong which was quite hard to describe but not too unpleasant." And for some who'd brought their aches and strains along with them "the analgesic effects were instantaneous." However, the biggest attraction for Dr C. was that he could slip it into his routine NHS appointment times without prolonging them. This came as a surprise to me as the only time I've ever consulted an acupuncturist, he took half an hour to assess me before reaching for his needles. And then the needles stayed in for a good 15 minutes. But Dr C has found that "the duration of the needling is relatively unimportant" and he's now seeing off all those aches and sprains without reaching for the prescription pad. "One day I might delve deeper into traditional Chinese medicine but for now I am happy to use its discoveries without concerning myself with its theories."

This struck me as faintly odd, since no doctor would admit to using the discoveries of Western medicine without at least a five-year medical degree and a bullshitter's acquaintance of the theories, but I know quite a few who've been on a weekend course of acupuncture and started using it the following Monday. When I was a senior house officer, a fellow junior doctor came back from such a course with 10 packets of needles and a textbook, and had the nerve to try it out in the Geriatric Day Unit with the book open on his lap. And for maximum placebo effect he used the traditional names of the acupuncture points rather than the numbers. "I'm just trying to find your Encircling Glory, Mrs Fanshaw. What? You don't want a needle there? Well how about I stick it in your Abundant Splendour?"

He was, of course, incredibly popular with elderly patients starved of attention, conversation and touch. And one of the consultants was so impressed that he borrowed the textbook and got stuck in without even bothering with the course. This frighteningly slapdash approach is a fair reflection of medical training overall. There are plenty of doctors who learned to do lumbar punctures or put in chest drains or take liver biopsies with the textbook open on their knees. Even today, seventy per cent of new operations by junior doctors are done alone and unsupervised. If you can do major surgery by the seat of your pants, acupuncture should be a doddle.

And a money-saver. Bob, a GP friend, did a crash course to cope with his heartsink patients. "You know, the really whingey ones in chronic pain who you can't get rid of." Initial results were very successful. "I loved the novelty value, they felt they were getting something special and I didn't have to dish out the painkillers."

So is he still doing it? "No. I thought I could sort them out with a few treatments, but they kept coming back again and again, and I just got fed up with prattling on about meridians and Qi when in my heart I think it's rubbish. I had to put on an act every time and it got quite tiring. So now they're all back to three months' worth of Brufen and a pat on the back."