What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a component of the traditional Chinese health care system. This healthcare practice can be traced back thousands of years. Acupuncture stems down from a general theory based on the premise that patterns of energy flow known as “Qi” exists through the body believed to be essential for good health. The Chinese believe that it is the disruption of this flow that are responsible for diseases. It involves the stimulation of specific points of the body (usually by the insertion of thin needles through the skin).

Acupuncture was rarely used to treat identifiable pathophysiological health conditions in America and in the western world until President Richard M. Nixon visited China in 1972. There has been a wide publicity and general acceptance in the use of acupuncture techniques in Europe and America. Even techniques of acupuncture are now well applied to western medicine.

Acupuncture is beyond the insertion of needles, it is a family of procedures involving the stimulation of different anatomical points in or on the skin by the different array of techniques. American acupuncture has developed different ways of approaching the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions by incorporating the traditional acupuncture practices from Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and other countries alike. The most used and thoroughly studied way for stimulating acupuncture points involves the penetration of the skin by solid, metallic (stainless steel) fine but very thin needles. These needles are often manipulated either by electrical stimulation or manually.

Acupuncture Clinic Antigonish

A more general or broader definition of acupuncture thus includes the different techniques used in stimulating acupoints by using

  • Needles
  • Moxibustion (moxa)
  • Electroacupuncture
  • Massage/pressure also known as acupressure

There are different treatment methods that originated in the far east and their medical systems and acupuncture are just one of them. Others include herbal therapy, specific dietetics, and QiGong (a system of physical exercises). Chinese traditional medicine and these practices are believed to be a complete and coherent system of medicine including its pathology, disease terminologies, therapeutic and diagnostic methods and the specific human physiology.

Acupuncture has been proven to be effective in the treatment of 117 conditions or diseases under case-controlled clinical trials. Of these conditions, acupuncture has strong evidence for the effectiveness of 8 conditions.

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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

Chinese 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.

Watch the following video for a nice easy explanation of how acupuncture works using Chinese medicine terminology.

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 the 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 PainDepending 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

Although 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. 

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 a migraine or low back pain.

Is Acupuncture effective?

Acupuncture Evidence AntigonishIn January 2017 a Comparative Literature Review, called the Acupuncture Evidence Project,  was published on the evidence for acupuncture. The review found that 117 conditions responded positively to acupuncture treatment. Of the 117 conditions, 8 were found to have strong evidence of positive effect. These conditions include migraine prophylaxis, headache, chronic low back pain, allergic rhinitis, knee osteoarthritis, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, post-operative nausea and vomiting and postoperative pain. They categorised the remaining conditions into potential positive and unclear. Thirty-Eight conditions were potential positive and 71 conditions were unclear.

From these findings, we can say that acupuncture is effective for treatment of certain conditions. As the research continues at the quality it is being produced recently, we are hopeful that we’ll be able to make claims for its ability to treat more conditions.

Bear in mind when considering acupuncture, that acupuncture within a Chinese medicine clinic is only one method in an array of methods used to restore health. Other methods used that may enhance the effectiveness of an acupuncture session may include cupping, Chinese herbs, heat treatment and massage. It may also include advice on diet, exercise and relaxation exercises. By incorporating more methods than acupuncture alone has the potential to enhance the overall effectiveness of treatment within a Chinese medicine clinic.

Does Acupuncture Hurt?


Most people that haven’t had acupuncture before, expect a sharp, strong sensation. In actual fact, a trained acupuncturist wants to avoid this response and instead, deliver a feeling of slight dullness, tingling or no sensation at all.

Many people that are fearful of needles, quickly reassociate the feeling of receiving acupuncture with a feeling of relaxation and pain relief. Acupuncture can be so relaxing that most people fall asleep during the session. It is after having a positive experience with an acupuncture treatment that the fear of needles subsides.

Acupuncture needles are small and create minimal sensation. With the modern invention of a guide tube which desensitises the area before the needle is inserted, pain free acupuncture is possible. How big are the needles? The gauge I commonly use in the clinic is only 30mm long and 0.22 mm thick. The gauge of a standard hypodermic needle given by a medical doctor is 2.85mm thick. This is a big difference and the reason many people will happily relax with acupuncture needles in for 30 minutes. 

Who can Receive Acupuncture?

Anyone. Acupuncture was designed to help people of all ages to help restore and maintain health. From babies to the elderly. The techniques may change per age group, but through Chinese medicine principles, a treatment plan is developed and the appropriate techniques implemented. Children, for example, may receive very gentle needling and pressure point treatment as opposed to a Highland games competitor that may need stronger methods to get the results. Each person is different and therefore the treatment methods change accordingly.

What is Involved in an Acupuncture Appointment?

Acupuncture AntigonishThe initial acupuncture session includes a consultation to determine your health from a Chinese medicine perspective. The outcomes may support acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, herbal medicine. We will discuss the treatment methods that best suit. After the consultation, the Chinese medicine techniques and recommendation will be explained.

Most commonly you’ll lay on a massage table for the session (most of the time on your back depending on your condition). The acupuncture needles are inserted and left for approximately half an hour. Usually, the needles will be stimulated again during the session. It is common to fall asleep during treatment. If herbal medicine is required, a formula will be created to take home. You may also receive dietary and lifestyle advice.

More Commonly Asked Acupuncture Questions

  1. What should I wear to an acupuncture session? I sometimes joke around that the 70’s was an ideal time for an acupuncturist due to all the flared pants. The majority of my patients do not need to remove clothing, however, I’ll often get the pants rolled up to the knee to treat the leg. So wear something comfortable since you’ll be relaxing for a while. If any clothing needs to be removed we’ll discuss this and make sure you feel comfortable right the way through the session.
  2. Can I exercise directly after acupuncture? This question is common in athletes and fitness fans. You certainly can exercise after acupuncture, in fact, some research suggests acupuncture directly before an event can enhance performance. In normal situations however I recommend walking or some form of light activity. Acupuncture helps to switch off the fight or flight response and strong activity stimulates it. So better to walk or rest directly after acupuncture.
  3. Can I have acupuncture while taking medications? One of the benefits of having acupuncture is that it doesn’t interfere with medications. With some blood thinning medication we must take care however acupuncture is generally fine at any time.
  4. Can I claim my health insurance in Canada? Yes. Paul is a member of ATCMANS and has a billing number for health insurance companies. For more information talk to your health insurance company.
  5. How to prepare for acupuncture? General advice for preparing for acupuncture is aimed at making you feel comfortable. Try not to overeat directly before and make sure you’re not too hungry. Allow yourself 15 minutes to sit and relax before the treatment. At our clinic in Antigonish, you will be offered tea or natural spring water beforehand. Take advantage of this time to unwind before treatment.

Making an Acupuncture Appointment in Antigonish

Making your acupuncture appointment in Antigonish Nova Scotia is easy. Try the online booking system and make an appointment now.

Works Cited

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John McDonald, S. J., 2017. The Acupuncture Evidence Project : A Comparative Literature Review (Revised). [Online] Available at: https://www.acupuncture.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/28-NOV-The-Acupuncture-Evidence-Project_Mcdonald-and-Janz_-REISSUED_28_Nov.pdf
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Liu , L. et al., 2015. Acupuncture for low back pain: an overview of systematic reviews. [Online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25821485
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Shearer, J., 2018. Acupuncture for Pain relief. [Online] Available at: http://evolvenaturalmedicine.com.au/acupuncture-pain-relief-newcastle/
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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: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24138020
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Trinh, K. et al., 2016. Acupuncture for neck disorders. [Online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27145001
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