Paediatric Acupuncture by Rebecca Avern

Paediatric acupuncture is on the rise in the UK: why is this ancient medicine so well-suited to 21st century children?

Children born in the 21st century in the developed world are faced with unique challenges.  Their survival is usually a given.  Yet the ability to thrive, physically and psychologically, eludes many.  These are the children who come to my clinic for acupuncture and for whom this gentle yet powerful form of medicine can be life changing.  There are many reasons why acupuncture can play an important role in the treatment of children.

The benefits of the therapeutic relationship

The current model of primary care medical practice emerged from the historical experience of dealing with children with infectious diseases, which required quick diagnosis and treatment.  In modern family doctor practices, the usual model is short and hurried consultations, maybe with a different physician each time. This means there is little opportunity for a child and family to develop a personal relationship with their doctor.  By contrast, acupuncturists are able to offer both longer consultations and continuity of personal care.  This allows for deeper exploration of symptoms and family dynamics, as well as the chance of building an ongoing therapeutic relationship.  The contribution this has for the current and future health of the child is enormous.

The ability to help diseases without the use of medication

Many parents come to an acupuncturist desperate to find help for their child who often has a condition that Western medicine may be ill equipped to treat.  They may have been sent away by doctors, or are unwilling to use long-term medication that may bring about other problems.  Acupuncture is especially well suited to the treatment of these children.  There is little Western medicine can do for bedwetting, food allergies or ADHD but acupuncture excels at treating these types of conditions.  Acupuncture is often extremely effective at treating adults with chronic conditions and when treating children with the same conditions, the results are often spectacular.  The chances of bringing about a recovery is much greater because a child’s body is more easily influenced and the disease usually not so deeply embedded. 

The treatment of mental/emotional disorders

There has been an enormous increase in the prevalence of psychological and emotional conditions in children and teenagers, such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression and self-harm.  Being a child in the 21st century, it seems, is stressful in a previously unseen way.  Children are especially prone to psychosomatic illnesses, where an emotion is expressed physically because, for a variety of reasons, it cannot be made conscious or expressed verbally.  The Monday morning stomach ache is a classic example of this, as are pre-exam migraines or asthma attacks just before a parent leaves for work.  Psychosomatic conditions are just as real, and just as important to treat, as purely physical illnesses.  Unfortunately, society often deems them to be less worthy of attention and the people who suffer from them to be less in need of support.  Acupuncture, with its deep understanding of the body and mind being one unit, is supremely effective in the treatment of these kinds of conditions. 

Helping children to thrive

The absence of illness is, in itself, a wonderful treatment outcome.  Yet there are other benefits of treatment that are particularly pertinent to children.  Having ill health as a child tends to shape a person’s relationship to illness later in life.  An adult who was chronically ill as a child is more likely to feel powerless or fearful in the face of illness.  It can mean that a sense of confidence in one’s physical body is never attained.  Long-term poor health as a child also has a strong influence on emotional development.  It may mean that certain key milestones are delayed or do not take place at all. 

Acupuncture for children is not purely about eradicating symptoms, however.  The Huangdi Neijing, which is an ancient Chinese medical text,  talks about treating a person after they have become ill as being as futile as beginning to dig a well after one has become weak with thirst.  Preventive treatment enables a child to better withstand the pressures they may face, and to ride times of accelerated growth and development more smoothly.  Ensuring that the movements of qi [1] remain balanced and smooth also means that unhealthy emotional patterns, such as chronic worry or erratic expressions of anger, are less likely to set in and become etched in the child’s personality forever.  Furthermore, disharmonies of qi can prevent a child from fulfilling their potential.  This is not about being a super achiever.  On the contrary, it affects each child’s ability to set out on the right path to eventually, as an adult, achieve their unique ‘contract with heaven’.

A gentle treatment which is well-accepted by children

The biggest barrier to children having acupuncture is their fear that it will hurt, or the parent’s fear that the child will not tolerate being needled.  In order for acupuncture treatment to be successful, it must be an experience that is enjoyable for the child or, at the very least, devoid of stress.  The vast majority of children are accepting of acupuncture needles when the treatment is approached in the right way.  The finest needles are used and a child-friendly needle technique means that the experience is pain free.  For the minority of children for whom using needles would prove psychologically stressful, there are many other treatment modalities available:  paediatric tui na (Chinese medical massage), shonishin (Japanese-style non-insertive paediatric techniques), low level laser pens and moxibustion to name but a few.

Sun Simiao is often described as the ‘father’ of Chinese medicine and he has arguably had more of an impact on the theory and practice of acupuncture than any other person.  In his seminal text Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang (Essential Formulas for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold) he described the art of ‘nurturing the young’ and it is as relevant today as it was when he wrote about it 1,400 years ago.  Twenty first century children need exactly the kind of help that acupuncturists can give.  The benefits for the child, the family and indeed the practitioner can be nothing short of life changing. 

Parts of this post are taken from the introduction of Acupuncture for Babies, Children and Children, Singing Dragon 2018.

[1] The concept of qi (pronounced chee) is the foundation upon which Chinese Medicine rests.  Qi is a kind of living matter that exists in everything in the world that we would think of as being alive.  Qi flows through a child’s body, is constantly changing, has its own rhythms, cycles and movements.  Qi is consumed by activity and replenished by air, food and rest.  The state of a child’s qi determines the state of her health.

Rebecca Avern heads the Pediatric Diploma Course at CICM. This is a post graduate course open to all acupuncturists with a degree in Acupuncture.

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