Nestled on the corner of Museum Street, York’s newly opened Love Community Acupuncture clinic could easily be missed by the average passer-by and yet inside it boasts nothing but space and serenity.
Set up only a couple of months ago by two friends and acupuncturists, Karen Charlesworth and Elaine Hildrick, the clinic is one of only 40 in the UK. Its unique selling point is low-cost acupuncture for the community – the premise being the ability to treat several patients simultaneously in the same room for a fraction of the price of private care.
Having never been someone who buys into the benefits of alternative medicine, it was with trepidation and a degree of scepticism that I knocked on the door of the clinic where I was to embark on an hour of treatment.
Once greeted by Elaine and Karen, however, I felt immediately at ease. They have both lived in York for over 15 years and became acquainted when training together at the Northern College of Acupuncture on Micklegate. After graduating they moved into private practice.
Karen explained the principal behind community acupuncture. “We were both seeing patients who wanted to either continue regular treatment or increase the number of treatments they were having, but couldn’t afford it.” In the largest cities in the UK, patients can pay between £50 and £70 for their first session of private acupuncture, with subsequent appointments costing between £35 and £50. In contrast, Love Community Acupuncture charges just £12 a treatment for the same quality.
We’re not just treating the body, we are treating the mind and the soul as a single entity.
Elaine carries out my treatment, which involves a 20-to-30 minute individual consultation to assess the nature of pain before inserting several needles around my wrists, forearm and knees. Karen is keen to get across the fact that, despite the treatment taking place in a community setting, she and Elaine only ever work with their patients on a one to one basis; “My attention is only ever focused on one patient at a time, so the quality of treatment is exactly the same as it would be if you came to see us in a private session,” and “the hygiene standards are exactly the same.”
Acupuncture was discovered as a medicinal practice in China between the first century BC and the first century AD. The therapy is based on the Meridian system and the balance and flow of energy in the body known as ‘Qi’.
It is believed that energy flows inside us in lines called meridians not unlike the electrical circuits in a house, and that illness and pain occurs when the meridians become unbalanced or blocked so that energy can no longer flow freely around the body.
During treatment, fine sterile needles are inserted into specific locations on the body to regulate this flow of energy, encouraging a healing response and restoring the balance of energy. The focus is on the root cause of the problem, not simply the symptoms.
I asked Karen how acupuncture stimulates positive chemical changes in the body. “There is a theory in Western medicine hypothesising that when you insert an acupuncture needle, you are creating a local, minor trauma in the body that triggers parts of the brain particularly in the limbic system which then sends extra resources to that area and then in turn activates other parts of the brain to help the body as a whole.”
Karen informs me that the University of York has researched the effects of inserting a single acupuncture needle on the brain, “which is how we know that the limbic system is affected using functional MRI scans to detect changes.”
Karen explains how community acupuncture is “quite unique among the alternative or complementary therapies in that once the needles are in, your patient is left to relax and you are then free to move on to the next.” This means that unlike massage or other more manual therapies, patients at Love Community Acupuncture are left for 20 minutes after consultation. Therefore, “it really lends itself to that community setting.”
Indeed, for both Elaine and Karen the biggest positive of their new venture is the “real buzz” of the communal treatment centre. “A lot of patients really value the atmosphere of being in a community clinic. For instance patients have got chatting and discovered they have similar interests.”
It is this distinctive atmosphere at Love Community Acupuncture that has, Karen believes, contributed hugely to the overwhelmingly positive feedback the new clinic has received since opening. “People come in looking for pain relief and they are reporting good clinical outcomes, but what is also really interesting is that they are reporting good personal outcomes in terms of lifting spirits and mood improvement because of the nature and environment in which they are being treated. That’s something that Chinese medicine in particular really picks up on because it is a holistic medicine. We’re not just treating the body, we are treating the mind and the soul as a single entity.”
I questioned Karen about the sceptical criticism that alternative medicines like acupuncture sometimes receive, and whether she thought attitudes were changing in our society. “In Western medicine, the body is often thought of as a machine. When parts of it start to malfunction, you go to the doctor and there are two major ways that they can help: one is pharmacology and the other is surgery.” Karen suggests doctors are slowly coming round to the thought that changes in one’s lifestyle can contribute hugely to the healing process.
Therefore health professionals no longer automatically reach for the prescription pad, but instead might suggest ways to alter a patient’s lifestyle, for example changing one’s diet, sleeping habits or exercise routine.
In contrast, Karen explains how Chinese medicine “sees your body as more like a garden; when you garden you do a little bit of pruning, a bit of weeding and watering, you create the optimum conditions for the garden to flourish and that’s a little bit like how acupuncture works.” It creates a “balance of energy in your body which gives you the optimum conditions to live your life in a positive and healthy way.”
Patients of all ages come to Community Acupuncture to treat a huge variety of conditions, ranging from headaches to muscular skeletal problems, IBS or IVF support. “Typically it will be symptoms that Western medicine struggles to make sense of. Just this morning we’ve seen one particular patient who has chronic fatigue syndrome, but as a result of that they’ve been experiencing lots of muscular pain and hot flushes which are not typical symptoms of chronic fatigue.
The only thing a doctor can do for that patient is to offer medication, which so far has been of no help. Acupuncture gives this patient more energy and takes away some of the pain so they are able to live a more normal everyday life.”
Most interesting, Karen notes, is that “people come in for one thing and in fact notice many other positive effects on their body, for example they may be sleeping better or their energy levels may have improved”.
For years the true benefits of acupuncture has generated substantial debate. However, having now experienced the positive effects for myself I cannot hesitate to recommend it as a low-risk, alternative when conventional medications fail to improve chronic pain. M.