How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is able to improve health and the body’s functions and also promote the natural self-healing process of the body. It does this by stimulating certain anatomic sites on the body usually referred to as acupoints or acupuncture points.

While there are so many methods used to stimulate the acupuncture points, the most common one remains the insertion of fine and sterile needles into the skin. Heat, electrical stimulation or pressure may then be used to improve the effects. Heat therapy or moxibustion, cupping, manual massage, and the use of linaments and application of topical herbal medicines are other techniques used for stimulating acupuncture points.

How Acupuncture Works From Chinese Medicine Philosophy

Acupuncture Clinic AntigonishChinese medicine developed over thousands of years of observation and theories to explain what they observed. Acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine are based on the ancient philosophy that believes and describes the universe and the human body to be in terms of two opposing forces popularly called the Ying and Yang. The body is healthy when these forces are in balance. Energy known as “qi” flows through certain pathways also known as meridians through the body. It is this constant flow of energy that keeps the two opposing forces (Ying and yang) balanced.

However, the disruption that happens when the flow of energy gets blocked, hindered or disturbed can lead to lack of function, illness or pain. Acupuncture therapy is said to release the “qi” in the body in order to stimulate function hereby evoking the body’s natural healing response using different physiological systems. The effects of acupuncture on the immune and endocrine system as well as the nervous, digestive, and cardiovascular system have been demonstrated through modern research. Acupuncture can be used to improve sleep, sense of well-being and digestive function and also resolve pain by stimulating the different body systems.

How Acupuncture Works On The Human Body. The Scientific Explanation

Since the 1970’s acupuncture has been researched to discover the mechanism that leads to positive results. From this research, a lot of interesting information has been discovered about the effects of acupuncture on the body.

Acupuncture Effects on Local Area

When a needle is inserted into the skin and muscle, the body responds with the increase in blood flow to the region. Along with the increased blood flow comes an array of immune cells such as mast cells and platelets. It also increases histamine, serotonin, substance P, acetylocholine, γ-aminobutyric acid,  somatostatin, nitric oxide, adenosine, bradykinin, prostaglandins, cytokines and more. These products have an effect on the nerves and tissue in the area.

Acupuncture’s Effect on the Brain

Acupuncture for Pain AntigonishDepending on the nerves stimulated, acupuncture can stimulate the dorsum horn of the spinal chord which then stimulates a reflex signal. This can affect the organs that are connected to the corresponding nerve as well as travel the spinal chord to impact the brain. There has been a lot of research around acupuncture’s effect on the brain. One of the most important functions is how it influences the hypothalamus. The stimulation of the hypothalamus regulates nitric oxide synthase. This regulation has been shown to balance the nitric oxide, a molecule that is used in nearly every process in the body. Too much or not enough nitric oxide can negatively impact the body.

Acupuncture’s effect on the midbrain and ventrolateral periaqueductal grey (vlPAG), has been shown to regulate blood pressure. It’s effect on the prefrontal cortex and reducing sympathetic response (fight or flight) has the, in my opinion, one of the most significant effects for people living in modern society. This reduction in stress and increase in parasympathetic response (relaxing) can alleviate pain and put the body into a mode that heals ailments.

Acupuncture’s Effect at a Cellular Level

Acupuncture Purinergic SignallingAlthough the above information is interesting, it doesn’t really explain the effectiveness of acupuncture on so many conditions. An interesting theory which now has research behind it is acupuncture’s impact on receptors within cells. In the 1970’s Geoffrey Burnstock discovered a set of neurotransmitters called purines. Geoffrey discovered how these neurotransmitters worked and were essential in neurotransmission. This signalling pathway is called purinergic signalling.

In 2009 Geoffrey stated that purinergic signalling is the reason behind acupuncture’s effectiveness. In recent studies where mice were bred without these receptors, it was shown that they didn’t receive the benefits of pain relief from acupuncture compared to the mice with receptors.

Two more studies involving mice as well as humans came out recently which further strengthened this theory. Purinergic signalling may be a big part of the puzzle of how acupuncture works. The fact that pharmaceutical companies are trying to develop ways to control these pathways indicate the researchers may be onto something here.

The Explanation in Clinic

When asked how does acupuncture work in the clinic I’ll often answer with how acupuncture stimulates the brain to release pain-relieving hormones and its ability to increase blood flow. This is often enough explanation when a needle in the hand can instantly relieve migraine or low back pain.

Most people want a logical reason to visit an acupuncturist, I know I did. I went in as a skeptic wondering how a little needle into my skin could fix anything. Anyway, it worked immediately for pain and I felt amazing afterwards. This is what led me on the journey to learning Chinese Medicine. 

Within the Chinese Medicine system you’ll find a lot of philosophy which the skeptics use to debunk the system as unscientific. However, this philosophy developed as a way to explain and replicate the results the Chinese were getting with acupuncture. This is also the reason acupuncture continues to spread around the world due to its success rate and word of mouth referral. 

If you’re wondering about Acupuncture then I suggest that you try it for yourself with a properly trained Chinese Medicine Acupuncturist. 

Works Cited

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Liu , L. et al., 2015. Acupuncture for low back pain: an overview of systematic reviews. [Online]Available at:[Accessed 18 June 2018].

Manyanga, T. et al., 2013. Pain management with acupuncture in osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. [Online]Available at:[Accessed 18 June 2018].

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Taylor, P., Pezzullo, L., Grant, S. J. & Bensoussan, A., 2014. Cost-effectiveness of Acupuncture for Chronic Nonspecific Low Back Pain. [Online]Available at:[Accessed 18 June 2018].

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