Tag Archives: Cambridge

Happiness

I start most days with a nice cup of tea and a scroll through the various news and social media platforms to see what is going on in the world of wellness.

This morning it was twitter that caught my eye with the hashtag #InternationalDayOfHappiness which was trending as I started planning the day.

When I say caught my eye, this hashtag was one of those things that immediately invoked a response, something I felt I had an opinion on. Of course the problem with snapshots like this is that they don’t give you any context so on the surface my interpretation of this hashtag is that the intention is that everyone should be happy today. As someone who changed their career to the pursuit of better wellbeing I feel that there are few problems with such a simplistic view, however well intentioned. My intention here is not to pour salt all over happiness, but to explain why I feel its pursuit as a life goal is potentially flawed and offer a different perspective that will enhance our sense of wellbeing.

So is International Day of Happiness all about making people happy?

Its not that simple. The principle is that the world is such a negative place, for one day, it is nice to flood our periphery with joy and happiness.

 

Sounds great, what wrong with that?

All over the world, thousands of people will feel the benefit. There are many others who wont. For some people, happiness is simply not within their grasp and certainly its not going to happen by telling them to be. The problem with flooding their world with happiness is that it simply reinforces their own unhappiness. We see this already at Christmas time, when our community feels an overwhelming pressure to feel joyful. Its well documented that those suffering from depression, loneliness or isolation will feel the effects particularly at this time of year.

 

Let’s just make them happy then!

If someone is unhappy, no amount of tom foolery or coercion is going to make them happy. The problem is that happiness is not a perpetual state of mind, its an emotion just like anger, fear and worry. Emotions when expressed appropriately are a normal response to situations we find ourselves in. For example, we feel fear when faced with danger. This is entirely appropriate and triggers a hormonal response in our bodies that alters how we function in preparation for responding to the threat. The natural expression of a broad range of emotions is normal, healthy and part of living a well balanced life. It becomes a problem when these emotions cant be switched off or become overly expressed. Happiness is no different. It would be highly inappropriate to feel happy when faced with a dangerous situation or grief.

So you don’t want people to be happy then

That’s not what I’m saying. I think people should express happiness, sadness, anger and all of the other emotions freely and appropriately without fear of judgement or ridicule. Setting your sights on “acquiring” happiness however is fundamentally flawed in the same way as being motivated by money.

What I consider to be problematic is how we define happiness. In our modern world, driven by consumerism and, lets be honest here, greed, happiness as some understand it is inexplicably intertwined with the acquisition of goods. There are other extremes too. For example, some people feel happiness when they are driving a vehicle at break neck speeds or from stealing other peoples possessions. Happiness in itself is not an exclusively virtuous or wholesome pathway and it is by no means an absolute right to feel happy if there is a cost to others.

So what do you suggest instead

I believe in a values based approach to setting life goals, working to the best of our ability to do what we feel is right and aligns with the person we truly want to be. Self compassion and compassion for others, if we follow this path, happiness may reward us along the way but we will achieve an overall sense of contentment and personal wellbeing, in my opinion a more achievable and sustainable goal.

We all know what the intention of the day is. Your making a bit of a big deal out of a few words aren’t you?

I don’t think so. The hashtag I saw this morning invoked an immediate response from me because of the language used. As humans have evolved, particularly over the last few years, our language and use of it has developed enormously. The addition of new words into our vocabulary and the change in culture have affected how we interpret language. We have a duty to take care over the choice of words we use and at very least to discuss and rationalise how we interpret themes. This isn’t judging something as right or wrong, simply opening the opportunity to broaden our discussions and consider different perspectives. That is why I offer this opinion, not to spoil the fun.

I’m sure people will disagree with me. This is what makes us develop as human beings and I welcome the variety of opinion that supports or contradicts my own. That is after all what keeps the conversation going and the human mind developing. I hope you have enjoyed reading this and if so, or if not, please comment.

Mental Health – Strong for too long?

One of the things I see on social media a lot is this statement

“Depression isn’t a sign you are weak, its a sign you have been strong for too long”

Its a well intentioned way of re-framing how we perceive mental illness but what does it actually mean and is it accurate? For me the language creates some problems!

Firstly, its a bit of a sweeping statement because mental illness is completely arbitrary, affecting people from all walks of life and for any number of different reasons.

What it refers to more specifically is a commonly encountered cause of depression. The curse of modern western society. Stress!

The “strength” to which it refers describes the capacity of a person to cope with stress. In so called “strong” individuals, stress acts as a motivator, an impulse to push harder and harder to overcome the adversity and achieve. When the drive goes beyond the bodies limits there comes a point where it has to break, like any system that is overloaded. At that point depression takes hold.

If you are one of these individuals (its fine by the way, I’m a lot like that myself) you probably feel better knowing that in spite of your mental health, society views you in positive terms as a go-getter. In some cases, it may encourage the perception that mental illness is simply a consequence of normal life if you want to “get on”.

But what if you aren’t “strong”? By implication, if not in actual language, this statement suggests that the opposite, people who fold at the first sign of stress and therefore don’t push their body through the same level of trauma, are unlikely to suffer depression. Apart from this (of course) being absolute rubbish, the implication is that these types of people are “weak” (it is after all the opposite of strong), a term most of us would consider to be an insult. Society after all has little regard for this approach to life.

Am I over analysing? Well certainly if the message that we value strong over weak is not implicitly carried in this statement on mental health, it is one that is heavily implied and indeed replicated across society, particularly in the workplace where I have repeatedly encountered the attitude that “going the extra mile” is pretty much compulsory.

Of course the path you decide to follow in life is an entirely personal choice. Where it becomes problematic is when society guides these choices through negative stereotypes. When people push themselves because they feel that is what is expected, not what they want.

Can a statement intended to make people feel better about themselves really do this? I think it can. I think the stigma of mental illness is driven by thousands of stereotypes, cultural norms and poorly used language. In this example, you could as easily change strong and weak for stupid and wise and tip the entire statement on its head. Language is a powerful tool and tackling what has become accepted norm is a huge challenge. If however we ever hope to have a lasting impact on the merciless onslaught of mental illness its one we have to take on.

It all begins by talking which is why Talking FreELY invest so heavily in facilitating simple and honest conversations about mental health. Because it is these conversations that will drive change.

If you are struggling with mental health there are a number of useful links on the Talking FreELY website. If you want to know how you can help to keep the conversation, check us out on Facebook and Twitter

www.talkingfreely.org

Mental Health – Surviving or Thriving

The theme of 2017 Mental Health Awareness Week is, surviving or thriving.  When I first read this I was immediately drawn to the word thriving, a word that fills me with optimism and excitement about the potential the world has to offer. Immediately I cast aside survival as a negative message that I didn’t want to focus on.

Today I was reflecting as I often do and I realised that this is mental health awareness week, and Talking FreELY, a local mental health organisation I am involved with is about honest non judgemental conversation on metal illness.  I realised my natural instinct to try and fix things had perhaps led to me missing at least 50% of the awareness message.   Awareness is not about solutions, its about giving some insight and however hard those messages are to deliver it is surely my responsibility as a mental health ambassador to try and do so.  So I would like to talk a little about survival and what that means in terms of mental health.

The first time I heard thrive or survive was on Chanel 4’s “The Island” with Bear Grylls.  12 contestants marooned on a desert island with nothing but basic tools and the clothes on their backs.  The challenge, not just to get through, but to actually enjoy it. To eat well, to create a comfortable living environment and a happy community.  I was watching this programme last night when the tail end of a hurricane hit the island dumping inch after inch of miserable battering rain on them.  No proper shelter, no proper clothing, unable to go and hunt for food, barely able to keep a fire going and worst perhaps, inaccessible even by the rescue teams.  It was utterly miserable and in that real life moment, any thought of thriving was lost and it became a single battle to get through that bad time.  It is a great example of how life is, and how mental health can be.

My own mental health is an ever changing landscape.  There are times when I do indeed thrive.  During these times I can really rip into life and live each day to its fullest potential,  laughing, joking, getting things done, the life, soul and energy of the party.  But its not always like that.  Several times a year, every year for as long as I can remember, my mental health will slump and the cloud of depression will loom overhead.  In these times its often all I can do to get out of bed in the morning.  I retreat from the world and everything from washing my face to taking the kids to school becomes a struggle.  As I’ve grown in my awareness I find I have an increasing number of strategies that can help me to predict and manage these bouts.  I lean more heavily on relationships, try where I can to get out more, stay off social media.  These interventions help but they aren’t about thriving or “snapping” myself out of it.  Surviving in these moments isn’t a choice under my conscious control.  I don’t chose to be depressed or anxious any more than those poor people on the island chose to be battered by relentless rain.  Its what life throws at me, and I do what I need to get through until the time passes and the sun comes out again.  Some people may come out of it and never get hit by a hurricane again.  For others, who live in their shadow, its about rebuilding and trying to be better prepared for the next time.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for focusing on thriving.  The reality of survival isn’t that cheerful and who wants to be seen as the harbinger of doom?  We all want to hear the positive messages. But this is mental health AWARENESS, not mental health utopia.  In amongst the positivity we should perhaps, quietly acknowledge that a lot of people are just surviving and in fact may not need a bundle of ideas just now to get them thriving.  Lets celebrate the successes but remember that the bigger task is in supporting the ever increasing number of people who are suffering from a mental health issue.  How you survive is what empowers and enables you to thrive.

If you are suffering from mental health problems and need help, please follow this link for details of support organisations – HELP

 

MENtal Health – Look out for your friends

The Time to Change charity have recently released a short film encouraging men to look for the signs of mental illness in each other and offer some support.  It sounds obvious but the campaign identifies that only a third of men feel comfortable talking openly about their feelings.

A number of social stigma’s prevented me from accepting I was mentally ill for years.  Fear of losing my job and my dignity, fears of tarnishing my future with a permanent label, fear of accepting the obvious and looking weak.  Of course I risked destroying all of these with mental illness anyway but never the less I resisted facing up to the facts for years.  Were my fears unfounded?  Sadly I think not.  Stigma and discrimination towards mental illness does exist but things are definitely changing.  One of the things that surprised me when I first opened up about my mental health problems was how many people had been there (or were there).  One in four will actually suffer a mental illness at some point in their life but that statistic means virtually all of us will encounter it and be affected in some ways.  When I started up the Metropolitan Police Mental Health network, we were deliberately open about who we were trying to support.  As such our membership grew not only with those suffering mental illness, but from those who were supporting family and friends, or who simply wanted to make a difference.

Thankfully I had mates in my corner who kindly but firmly encouraged me to face up to my illness and seek help.

I would encourage everyone to watch this video and think about how you can support the battle to end Stigma.  It will help to save lives.

If you are interested in how acupuncture could help with your mental health please email me here

If you need urgent help for a mental health problem you can contact the Samaritans here

For more information on Time to change and how you can be involved click here

Work life balance – 3 Steps to changing your life

work-life-balance

Photo Credit: Work Life Balance, by NY – http://nyphotographic.com/. Supplied by http://www.picserver.org under Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0

I remember the days quite clearly. Standing on the platform at about 5am, shattered, waiting for the train into work with several other miserable people all of us slaves to the wage.

My story is probably familiar. Job in London, moved out when I had kids so I could afford a decent house, longer commute as a result. To minimise the impact I had condensed my hours so instead of working 5 days a week I worked 4 longer ones. As a result I got an extra day at home on the weekend but the trade off was leaving the house at 4.45am and getting in at 7.30pm on a good day. If there was a delay, which there frequently was, it could be 9, 10 o’clock or dossing down with my in-laws because I couldn’t get home at all.  It was a grind and although I still believe it was the right thing to do at that time, I never the less longed for a better life.

I’m not alone in challenging the status quo.  In a recent survey  60% of respondents admitted they have a hard time maintaining a good work-life balance and most of the people I speak to would prefer to have more time to do what they want to do.  But is it really what we want and if it is, whats actually standing in the way? I suspect we will all resonate with the same thoughts: Fear of the unknown, conformity with an ingrained culture, lack of appreciation of our own self worth.  Yet if we can overcome, the rewards are priceless.

These days I work for myself.  My acupuncture clinic is about a mile from my home in the shadow of Ely Cathedral and I’ve structured my days so that I can do the school run every day and see my kids both in the morning and the afternoon.  I spend Monday and Friday at home catching up with paperwork and all of the other unspoken responsibilities of a small business owner. I don’t drive a flash car or live in a flash house but I live comfortably within my means.  Most importantly the 5am train journeys to London lie firmly in my past.

What convinced me to change.  When I reflect back on my own journey to work-life balance it happened over three distinct phases, all of which were symbolised by an event or metaphor.  I believe that by adopting this three phase approach you too can get the life you want so I have summarised each with the lesson I learned below.

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Photo by Jeremy Shultz on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license

Step 1 – Challenge your relationship with money

Everyone needs money to get by in life but it is entirely fair to say that western lifestyle is driven less by need as by desire. In my lifetime alone we have added mobile phones, broadband and cable or satellite TV to the typical household budget.  Stretch back a generation and the list wouldn’t even have included a TV.  Undoubtedly we have become more dependant on mod cons and technology but when you strip it right back, our existence doesn’t actually depend on them.

For most of us, work-life balance means making some financial sacrifices so one of the first tasks is to get a better understanding of your own relationship with money.

I first started to think about money differently when I moved to Ely where the train station is Sandwiched between a large Tesco supermarket on one side and countryside on the other amongst which is nestled the Bridge Fen allotments.

I often pondered the irony of looking out longingly at the allotments, wishing I could be out in the fresh air growing my own food for my family when instead I was travelling to work to earn money to spend in the supermarket on inferior quality produce because I was too busy earning the said money to spend any amount of meaningful time growing my own!

You may want to read that again a few times to get your head around it but in summary, by my reckoning, the lost income from trimming my working hours could have paid for itself in better quality home grown food.  Looking even more laterally at the savings, I could have most likely cancelled out my monthly gym subscription too on the natural exercise I would get maintaining an allotment.

Now I should point out, I haven’t changed my life by growing veg (though it still sits at the back of my mind in the “to-do” pile) but it was this simple observation that set me to changing my whole way of thinking.  Once I broadened this simple perspective I started looking at how I spend all of my money and asking hard questions about want over need.  Do I need an expensive house?  Do I need an expensive car?  What can I get by on.  If I don’t want to get by, how much will it all cost?  This isn’t to say I live a frugal existence.  There are many “wants” amongst my expenditures, the luxuries I feel give me the right balances in life, but what I did, and what I advocate for those who want to change their lives, is to really analyse expenditure,  challenge your thought processes and in doing so set out your priorities.  Do I need it, will I use it, will it make me happy? Cant afford your mortgage? Sell your house and buy a cheaper one. Already on the first rung of the property ladder? Sell and rent, move abroad, live in a caravan.  I know it sounds drastic but you really need to get to the bottom of what drives you.

I could buy a bigger house, I chose not to because it gives me the freedom to work less hours and spend time with my kids.  The point is that Financial freedom is an option for most of us once you peel away your manufactured barriers.

Step 2 – Find the right role in life

Photo by Carmela Nava on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license

Photo by Carmela Nava on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license

Actually this came to me last but Ive put it here in the chronology because (for reasons that become clear later) my own experience suggests that it’s a better fit sooner in the process.

For some people, the pathway to work life balance is going to be easier than for others.  Some jobs lend themselves to part-time hours or flexible working.  Others can make an easy transition to consultancy or agency work.  But what about those of us who don’t have an easy transition or who are looking for a complete change?

For many years I had longed for the freedom of working for myself.  Trouble is, I’m risk adverse.  My dad lost heavily in a business venture back in the 80s and as a result growing up was hard.  Jumping into the unknown and potentially investing speculatively on a business terrifies me and no matter how miserable I was the safety of my situation took priority over my happiness.  It didn’t stop me dreaming though and I spent days and weeks in contemplation and conversation with family and friends trying to find the perfect plan.  I got nowhere except frustrated.

My inspiration came from an unlikely source, a discarded newspaper on the train that I’d have normally ignored.  This day however I picked it up and chanced upon an article about a person who had won a slimming title after losing a phenomenal amount of weight.  I wasn’t really interested in the story and almost put it down but just at the end I saw a short sentence which read – “now works as a slimming consultant”.  The simple idea of using your own experience to coach and inspire others made complete sense and as I thought it through I realised there were other examples. Reformed drug addicts working in rehabilitation, former gang members working with inner city youth’s and many more where life experience translated to work.  From that moment I set my future career path on doing the same thing.

It was an exciting moment because I knew that this was a safe bet.  I was investing in myself and as such had as much control over the investment as its possible to have.  But what did I have that people wanted?  The answer was simpler that I’d have thought.  I’d stepped back from the world and looked at it from a different view point and when I looked around, realised that lots of other people are striving to do just that.  I was going to change my life and in doing so improve my health and then I was going to help others who were stuck! I walked down a couple of dead ends before I decided that Acupuncture would be the vehicle for delivering my aims but once I’d decided what my “purpose” was the rest became simply about getting the right tools for the job.

Now it may well be that you have a clear idea of what you want to do.  Braver people than me may chose to really go for it. If however you are like me and struggling to see what you have to offer the world my advice is to look a bit closer to home.  The answer may be a lot closer than you think.

Step 3 – Step off the merry-go-round

Photo Credit: Merry go round, The Hoppings, Newcastle upon Tyne, by Ian Britton. Supplied by FreeFoto.com under Creative Commons License

Photo Credit: Merry go round, The Hoppings, Newcastle upon Tyne, by Ian Britton. Supplied by FreeFoto.com under Creative Commons

Of course all of this insight and self realisation is just the preparation.  You can buy the best parachute, get the best training and lay out the softest landing but whichever way you sugar coat it, you will eventually have to jump and that takes either courage or an almighty shove.

My encouragement came from a good friend who used to listen with good grace to my daily moans and complaints, crazy business ideas and mad-cap plans for a future that was apparently getting no closer.  He would simply say to me, “Tony, you need to step off the merry-go-round”.  And you know what, this metaphor encapsulates the whole experience of change so beautifully I cant think of any better way to put it! I wouldn’t however recommend getting off the same way as me.  I half jumped and was half pushed when we were spinning pretty fast.  I failed to hit the ground running and as a result fell flat and hard.  You can spare yourself some pain by slowing the merry-go-round down and having a few steps planned before you jump!  That said my fall became part of my toolkit.  I got up, fixed myself and here I am now sharing the experience to spare others so I guess it wasn’t all that bad!

Bringing it all together

Embracing a work-life balance isn’t an easy task and there are times when it feels the world is against you.  Society embraces quantitive success where achievements are measured in pounds and pence and it takes a brave person to challenge this and live their life to qualitative values.

What I can say, from personal experience, is if you can embrace the change a happier healthier life is almost certainly awaiting .  Most people will secretly hanker after everything you have gained and actually, far from mocking will probably applaud you.

Good luck with your journey.

Tony is a former Metropolitan police sergeant now working as an acupuncturist in Ely, East Cambridgeshire and is available for private appointments or corporate presentations/events.  Details of how to contact him are given here.

A Word about Evidence

The Detective

Photo by paurian on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

The issue of science and evidence based medicine has interested me since I first entered the profession of traditional acupuncture.  I am fascinated by the far reaching capabilities of science, particularly how modern thought correlates with the traditional philosophical concepts of health that still form the main foundation of traditional Chinese Medicine.  It is through this respect however that I have also learnt the limitations of what human beings can explain or understand.

The evidence base for acupuncture is a big subject in which many pitch battles are fought, usually between the relatively niche worlds of scientific skepticism and research savvy complementary therapists.  Its dominated by big brains and personalities and an arena into which I feel intimidated to even dip my toe.  However! The recent episode of BBC’s “Trust me, I’m a Doctor”, in which they tackled the question “does acupuncture work” in about 8 minutes has convinced me to offer some observations that may better equip people to make a more informed decision for themselves.

Historical context

Acupuncture has been researched since the 19th Century and appeared in the first ever issue of the world acclaimed medical journal The Lancet.  The scientific interest however gathered momentum in the 1950’s when Chairman Mao established a number of acupuncture research institutes as part of a “reinvention” of traditional medicine”.  This and an increasing interest in acupuncture from the scientifically minded west led to a substantial amount of acupuncture research.  It is now most likely the most widely researched complementary medicine in common use.

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Photo by Jeremy Shultz on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license

The Gold Standard of Evidence

When we hear about scientific evidence in medical terms it is really defined by the Randomised Control Trial (RCT) which is considered the Gold Standard of evidenced. In order to establish how well a particular treatment or intervention works it is studied alongside one or more “control groups”. Trial subjects are randomly allocated to one of the groups or “streams” in which they will receive either a treatment or a control treatment.   In the best studies one of the control groups will be treated with a placebo i.e. designed so that the person giving and receiving it cannot differentiate from the active treatment.  In a blind trial they will have no idea which treatment they are getting.  In a double blind study the practitioner will also be blind as to which treatment they are giving.  In its simplest terms a positive outcome would see the tested treatment or intervention outperforming the controls in a statistically significant way.  Sounds simple?  Its not.  Its a complex time and resource intensive process. There are numerous quality indicators within the process and any deviation risks invalidating or at least undermining the entire study.

Difficulties of designing and RCT of Acupuncture

Firstly, there are a lot of poorly designed studies out there and I’m not decrying the ones that say acupuncture doesn’t work.  Actually the opposite.  Some of the early studies of acupuncture that consistently found it to be better than sliced bread aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

There are of course good ones too and it is in some of the larger and better quality studies of acupuncture that we hear one of the commonly cited criticisms that ‘whilst acupuncture outperforms “usual care” with statistical significance, it fails to compare so well to sham acupuncture’.  This is interpreted by many as meaning it is no better than a placebo.  I think we should consider more information before leaping to this conclusion.

Lets be clear, RCTs are designed for and lend themselves to researching drugs.  In this type of research, creating a placebo is a simple matter of handing the subject a pill or liquid without any active ingredients, usually a sugar pill.  The subject takes it as they would any other drug and in the main, this is a direct representation of how a patient would be treated with drugs.

_DSC0027For interventions using holistic therapies like acupuncture it is far more complex.  Typical clinical practise for a traditional acupuncturist involves a great deal more than just needling.  Palpation, case history, lifestyle advice, the list goes on.  And then there’s the needling, tailored individually to the patient and their unique presentation.  Many trials of acupuncture use pre-defined acupuncture points and seek to isolate it from the other parts of treatment like lifestyle advice etc.  You end up with a highly sanitised treatment that bears little if any resemblance to a typical clinical encounter.

The issue of using a placebo control is also highly controversial.  Creating a placebo for acupuncture means designing an “act” for real and false acupuncture that nobody can differentiate. The favoured methods are retractable needles that don’t penetrate the skin or normal needling on “non” acupuncture points.  The latter at least involves needling which arguably activates a bodily response making it far from inert.  The former is also far from infallible.  During a practise sessions with various types of non-penatrative placebo needles I found that in fact they frequently break the skin and this corresponds with the experience of research acupuncturists too.  If they penetrate the skin, can it be considered as a placebo or non-active intervention?

I’d suggest not so what you end up with is a placebo that may not be inert and an intervention that does not represent normal clinical practise.  Yet in spite of this, both still outperform usual care. What does this say?  My interpretation is that even bad acupuncture is better than usual care or no treatment.  Imagine the potential for proper acupuncture!

Other evidence

What really grates on me is not the never ending argument of the wether or not an RCT has proved one thing or another.  Its the hailing of an RCT as the be all and end all of evidence like nothing else in the world matters. I think this is demonstrative of a far larger cultural shift driven by advances in technology, not just our attitude to medical science.  For example, in my previous profession of law and order we used to solve crime long before CCTV and DNA evidence (I hear the cynics amongst you! Lets have that debate another time!)  Now it seems that witness testimony doesn’t really cut it.  We need concrete proof and undisputed computer audit trails.  Does this mean that without them the crime never took place, that the evidence of a witness was wrong?  No, its just that we now have a higher expectation.  The same is true of medical science.  The old evidence is still evidence and actually, if theres enough of it or the “new” evidence is poor evidence it is arguably still “best” evidence!  Thats not to knock progress, just to encourage some humility because our expectations now are so high we seem to forget that in the greater scheme of things we actually still know very little.  Anyone who has suffered a migraine will back me up here.  Drugs may work, they may not, they may work for a time then stop working.  Actually, this commonly occurring but painfully debilitating illness is very poorly understood in spite of countless studies and amazing scientific developments.

Traditional acupuncture does not rely solely on what can and can’t be proved scientifically.  It is built primarily on the collective knowledge of recorded clinical practise over 2,000 years. It is good evidence stood next to science which has only really developed in the last 60 years and still has a long way to go.  I wonder then why some people would be so quick to dismiss it.

Conclusion

Wooden justice gavel and block with brass

Photo by Tori Rector on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license

I hope that I have been able to give a good overview of the strength and potential weaknesses of scientific evidence in the field of acupuncture.  In my opinion, whilst science has a huge part to play in our future, it still stands very much in support of the historical knowledge and philosophy that is the bed rock of traditional acupuncture.  That doesn’t mean Im not excited about what it can and will bring to my profession as we make more and more advancements .  I simply advocate tempering this with an awareness of our own limitations and the openness of possibilities beyond our own limited knowledge.

In the meantime I will continue to be guided by “all of the evidence” to treat individual health needs with traditional acupuncture for as long as it continues to help people.  I have a feeling I won’t be retiring anytime soon!

Insomnia

A video from 2 years ago of Toyah Willcox talking to the British Acupuncture Council about insomnia and how acupuncture helped her.

Facial Enhancement: Acupuncture or Botox

model-429733_1920If you are after easing the sands of time a little, options have traditionally involved either surgery, fillers or botox.  Increasingly people are turning to acupuncture as a way of enhancing and rejuvenating their looks.  In this blog post I am looking at the two treatments and how they stack up.

 

syringe-30012_1280Botox

What is it – Botox is a drug made from neurotoxin called botulinum toxin.  The toxin comes from the bacteria that causes Botulism , a rare but life threatening disease that attacks the nervous system.

Scientist have estimated that 1 gram of Botulinum toxin could kill around one million people.   Never the less it is generally well tolerated when injected into human beings in the correctly diluted levels.

It is important to distinguish between Butolinum Toxin and Botox.  Botox is one of many commercially adapted  Butolinum Toxin products.  Whilst it is most famously known for cosmetic treatments, it has a range of clinical applications including  involuntary muscular spasm, eye blinking, underarm sweating, and on some circumstances overactive bladder.  More recently it has been reported as benefiting migraine though the evidence of this is disputed.

The first licensed use of Botox for cosmetic reasons was in 2002 and since then it has enjoyed increasing popularity, probably due to its use by the rich and famous, many of whom have spoken openly about their own treatments.  It is now the most popular cosmetic procedure with in excess of 6 million treatments worldwide.

Treatments involve injecting botox into the face causing temporary muscular paralysis which helps to reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles. The results are reported to last between 4 to 6 months.  Side effects to treatment are rare but wide ranging and can be life threatening including: Problems swallowing, speaking, or breathing.

Prices seem to vary greatly from place to place and may not be openly advertised.  People on the Money Saving Expert forum I looked at seemed to be paying around £150 per facial area in 2009, most needing 3 areas injecting.  The NHS website and many other resources recommend that you find a suitably qualified therapist to carry out your procedure however, providers of cosmetic treatments that do not involve surgery don’t have to be registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC), which is the independent regulator for health services in England.  Many providers of services in non regulated industries will belong to a professional body of some sort and qualify their standards by declaring “Member of such and such professional body”.  The reality is that these professional bodies too are often unregulated so these words alone mean nothing.  You would need to do a bit of homework to satisfy yourself of the level of training and expertise your therapist has.

 

neckAcupuncture

Acupuncture is a system of health that traces its routes through a rich and varied history back to ancient China.  It involves the insertion of tiny needles into the body at specific points to illicit a specific clinical effect.

Whilst existing in european countries for hundreds of years, it started to gather in popularity in the 1970’s.

Research into acupuncture dates back to the beginning of the 1800’s but really gathered momentum in the 1950’s when Chairman Mao invested heavily in Chinese research facilities.  It is now probably the most researched complementary medicine in the world.

Facial Enhancement Acupuncture, also referred to as Cosmetic Acupuncture, is a relatively new application though it is starting to get quite a name for itself in the beauty industry.  It is believed that the small trauma caused by an acupuncture needle causes the body to regenerate its naturally occurring elastin and collagen which gently and eases the signs of ageing with repeated application.

FEATreatment involves the insertion of  many tiny needles into the skin along lines, furrows or damaged areas (such as from acne).  Some practitioners include other techniques like massage, to supplement treatment. A properly trained traditional acupuncturist is also likely to take a full case history and address underlying health and well being issues.  Optimal results are said to be achieved after a course of regular treatment, between 6 and 10, after which periodic sessions to keep things topped up are recommended.

Side effects to acupuncture are also rare.  As with an injection, you may experience bruising at a needle site.  This is rare and a well trained practitioner will be able to minimise the effects with good after care however on the occasions when treatment does leave its mark you can expect the bruise to clear within a few days.  For these reasons most credible acupuncturists will recommend that you don’t have treatment within 2 weeks of a big occasion.  More information on side effects and their prevalence can be found at the British Acupuncture Council Website, www.acupuncture.org.uk

As with non surgical cosmetic procedures, acupuncture in the UK is unregulated and some individuals have sought to exploit this by offering their services with minimal training.  A good measure of quality is the educational level of your therapist.  Traditional acupuncturists have studied a 3 year degree course or equivalent.  This level is a minimum requirement to become a member of the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) so if your therapist belongs to this organisation you can be absolutely assured of the highest standards. Other providers of cosmetic acupuncture are likely to be doing acupuncture as a supplement to their main discipline i.e. physio’s, osteopaths etc.  The amount of training varies greatly from 1 day to more formalised week long courses.

Cost again varies and tends to be region specific.  In central London you could be paying anywhere up to £250 per session.  Elsewhere anything up to £80 is reasonable though this is not to say that those charging more are ripping you off.  They may be offering a very deluxe product.  Most acupuncturists are very transparent with their pricing so it should be easy to compare costs within your area.

If you are interested in trying out facial enhancement acupuncture the feel free to give me a call  or book in for a session at one of my clinics in Girton and Ely.

Pain

alone-62253_1920Whilst I spend a lot of time talking about the wide spectrum of holistic clinical applications for acupuncture, it is still the case that the majority of patients I see, and indeed who present to acupuncturists around the country, are seeking help with some type of pain.  The treatment of pain is probably what acupuncture is best known for.  Indeed it is also pain treatments for which the best scientific evidence of efficacy exists (Lower back pain and migraine/cluster type headaches, NICE recommendations) In this blog we are looking in a little more detail at the subject of pain and how acupuncture may help.

What is Pain?

The widely accepted definition of pain was developed by a taxonomy task force of the International Association for the Study of Pain: “Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in such terms.”  Importantly, this definition highlights the fact that pain is a subjective sensation.  In other words expressions such as “it can’t be that bad” say more about the frustration of the person saying it than the person suffering pain.  One persons unbearable pain may be very different to the next, indeed it may be very different according to a number of external factors like temperature, time of day, mood etc.  In my work, pain is whatever the patient says it is.

There are a number of ways in which to classify pain but I particularly like those described by Professor G. F. Gebhart who separates pain into protective and non protective of acute or chronic duration.

_DSC0099Protective pain could be likened to my old career as a police officer.  Nobody likes it much but actually its doing an essential job.  In this simplest form, pain is a protective response from our body to prevent more serious injury.  For example, the pain one experiences when touching something hot is a warning shot that prevents a more serious burn.  Without pain we’d be in big trouble.  A very small number of people in the world are born with a condition called congenital analgesia, no sense of pain, and it is a serious life threatening condition.  So when we injure ourselves and it hurts when we move in a particular way, we can normally accept from this that our body, at least for that moment in time, doesn’t want us to move in that way through fear of making the injury worse.

Non protective pain by comparison serves no obvious protective function, such as the the pain experienced after a nerve injury.

The terms chronic and acute can be ascribed to either of the above classifications and describe the duration of the pain.  The NHS consider pain to be chronic or persistent if it has been suffered for 3 months or more and has failed to respond to standard medical treatment.  Persistent pain is a poorly understood condition but it is believed that in at least some cases, there has been a breakdown in the way in which the body processes information from our highly complex nervous system.  Alarmingly its not an unusual condition.  The Chronic Pain Policy Coalition in a recent publication reported around 14 million people in the UK alone living with persistent pain, 25% of whom have lost their jobs.  In other words, if you suffer from chronic pain, you are far from being alone.

So how does acupuncture work?

_DSC0027Scientific research for acupuncture is very complex and is much debated (a subject better covered in my talks).  A number of theories are suggested for the mechanism behind acupuncture treatment.  Some studies have found that certain hormones released by the body for anaglesia in response to pain are released in greater quantities during electro-acupucture treatment.  Another explanation is the micro trauma theory which suggests that causing a very small injury in the region of existing trauma re-activates the bodies healing mechanism, “waking it up” so to speak.  All of the current theories/explanations are interesting and plausible but it is fair to say that the exact science is not fully understood and needs more investigation.  Never the less, in certain pain conditions such as migraine and lower back pain the results of using even very basic acupuncture treatment is so positive that it is recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Where pain is chronic it may be more useful to consider the problem in the Traditional Chinese Medicine paradigm.  In basic terms this holds that the usual smooth flow of the bodies energy force, Qi, is disrupted which causes a blockage or stagnation.  This in turn causes pain.  Acupuncture at certain points on the body can get the energy moving in the right way again.  Of course moving Qi is just one part of the problem.  The challenge, and what makes acupuncture a holistic therapy, is to work out why the energy is stagnating in the first place.  In a post trauma injury this may be easy to work out but in long term chronic issues any number of physical and emotional factors could be at work in isolation, or in collusion with one another.  Looking at the wider aspects of your health and well being both physically and mentally helps me to get a clearer picture of whats going on and to then tailor the treatment to your specific needs.

More help

If you suffer from pain and would like more information about how acupuncture could help please contact me to discuss – Contact Details

For more information on managing pain follow this link to the NHS pain management self help leaflet – Pain Toolkit

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

AutumnTheres a lot to be grateful for at this time of year.  Abundant freshly harvested food, a cacophony of colours as autumn takes its hold, cosy nights in front of a roaring fire as the nights close in.  For some people the joy is overshadowed by low mood that may have no tangible origin, but simply sits there, like a cloud over their head until the seasons start to tip once again and the longer days draw in.  For those who feel like that, they could well be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a form of depression that follows a seasonal pattern with sufferers experiencing a change in mood depending on the time of year.  The usual onset is in Autumn and Winter when the daylight hours are shorter.  Less commonly this is reversed.

The problem is poorly understood but several theories exist.  From the physiological perspective hormonal anomalies in sufferers may provide some explanation.  Melatonin is a hormone that the body secretes to induce sleep.  Scientific studies, though not yet conclusive, have examined levels of melatonin in SAD sufferers and have found it to be higher during winter months.  Likewise Seratonin, the “feel good hormone” is likely to be found in lower levels.
pexels-photo

It is not known why some people are affected in this way but one theory is that the reduction of daylight during winter months is responsible for the altered hormonal levels.  This is supported by data.  If you live nearer the equator, where daylight hours remain more constant through the year, you are far less likely to suffer from SAD.  This theory carries weight.  In our increasingly evolving world, far less of us work outdoors these days, instead sitting in front of computers staring at false light all day before going home in the dark.  But perhaps the bigger problem is not the amount of light we work in, but the fact that we don’t adapt.  Compare us with certain other mammals who would retreat to hibernation during the winter months.  As the colder months draw in, their bodies tell them its time to slow down and recuperate so they do exactly this.  Humans however continue at the same speed and pace making no changes at all.  If anything on the approach to Christmas we speed up, desperately trying to cram everything in before the end of the year.  In this theory, the adjustment in hormones is in fact entirely normal.  The development of symptoms happens because we don’t respond, the emotional equivalent of running on an already sprained ankle.

The solution in this instance is of course simple.  Hibernate.  If only.  Unfortunately, very few of us are in a position to work less hours during the shorter days so practically speaking, SAD becomes a condition to treat rather than a change we must manage.  So what can we do.

handsWell, firstly, I still recommend getting more rest and slowing down where possible.  Holistically, the key is to treat the source of the problem.  Acupuncture is more than an answer to aches and pains and a number of people seek treatment for a range of health issues including emotional support.  It is also worth considering light therapy for which more scientific evidence is emerging.  This is a simple and relatively cost effective therapy you can control yourself and would work well in support of other treatments.  Its worth researching the subject properly however as the science is quite specific.  Medical evidence has suggested that lights need to emit 10000 lux to be effective.  The light units that conform to this are registered correctly as medical devices.

If you would like to talk to me about how acupuncture could help with your health and well being please email me info@sigristacupuncture.co.uk or call 01353 360 633.  I may be in clinic but if you leave a message I’ll get straight back to you.

If you are considering buying a light therapy box please read do your research.  The SAD.org website provides good clear guidance with appropriate links.  Alternatively, get in touch with me.  www.SAD.org.uk

For more information on SAD including a downloadable leaflet, please follow this link to the MIND website.  www.mind.org.uk

Thank you for reading