How Acupuncture Works

Chinese Explanation
Oriental medicine is based on a functional and energetic model rather than the structural and biochemical model of Western medicine. The ancient Chinese recognized the vital energy behind all life forms and life processes. They called this energy Qi (pronounced chee). In developing an understanding of the prevention and cure of disease, the ancient physicians discovered a system of cyclic energy flowing in the human body along specific pathways. These pathways can actually be felt when there is some disease process in the associated organ. Using Therapeutic Touch I myself have felt the Lung and Large Intestine channels when the patient had a cold or flu. I’m sure there were practitioners back then that could do the same thing. Each pathway is associated with a particular physiological system and internal organ.
Disease is considered to arise because of deficiency or imbalance of vital energy in the energetic pathways and their associated physiological systems.
The pathways or meridians of energy communicate with the surface of the body at specific locations called acupuncture points. Each point has a predictable effect upon the vital energy passing through it.
Traditional Oriental medicine has also developed methods of determining the flow in the meridian system, using an intricate system of pulse and tongue diagnosis. Findings from these modalities are combined with other signs and symptoms to create a composite diagnosis. A treatment plan is then formulated to induce the body to a balanced state of health.

Western Explanation
In Western terms, modem research has revealed two primary mechanisms through which acupuncture can be explained. The first and most important in most cases is its mediation through the nervous system and in particular its influence on the autonomic nervous system (the automatic control system of the body). There is a large body of research demonstrating that acupuncture is mediated through the nervous system and can block pain awareness by inhibiting pain signals from reaching the brain (Gate Control Theory) and/or by causing the release of endorphins (the body’s natural pain-killers) in the brain itself. Other research clearly demonstrates that acupuncture is capable of influencing autonomic control of various body processes by demonstrating that acupuncture points can stimulate specific sympathetic or parasympathetic activity depending on the point(s) selected and the kind of stimulation used’.
Simply put, Oriental medicine is largely based on a sophisticated understanding of the autonomic nervous system and how it can be adjusted through the use of various forms of stimuli at specific points on the body.

I have found that an easy way to understand acupuncture’s relationship to the autonomic nervous system is to look at acupuncture’s origins. Much of it’s origins are from the Chinese ancient philosophy of Daoism (also spelled Taoism). this philosophy is based on the observation that a key principal in the physical world is the interplay of opposites for  life to flourish. So it’s natural to assume that the same holds true in the body.  In fact one of the most ancient diagnostic techniques diagnoses a condition by looking at where it sits in terms of opposites such as is it hot or cold matured, is it damp or dry, is it excess or deficient, yin or yang, etc. The treatment is then designed to bring the body back into balance. If too hot, cool it down, etc. That’s exactly how the autonomic nervous system works. The sympathetic nervous system is yang (stimulates function) while the parasympathetic   nervous system is yin (inhibits function) The balance between the two is what allows the body to function properly. Chinese herbs are characterized in how they affect the body in a similar way. So basically Chinese medicine is in a sense a sophisticated understanding of autonomic functioning and how to influence it that was developed without even knowing there was a nervous system!
The other mechanism involves the nature and function of the meridians and their importance in the treatment of painful, inflammatory and degenerative conditions. The Chinese believe that Qi flows in the meridians and acts to moisten and nourish the organs and tissues of the body. Pain is considered to be due to the stagnation or blockage of this energy by various mechanisms. Numerous anatomical studies have failed to reveal any distinct structures such as can be found for the circulatory and lymphatic systems. Researchers in France, however, took a different approach by injecting a radioactive tracer dye into acupuncture points (and non-points as controls) and using gamma cameras (and later high-speed CT Scans) to see where it went. Lo and behold, the tracer dye followed the pathways of the traditional acupuncture meridians! Furthermore, the control studies proved that the dye migration was independent of the lymphatic and circulatory systems thus proving objectively and conclusively the existence of a hitherto unknown additional circulatory system in the body.
In conversations with the researchers, there was general agreement that these pathways are a result of the organization tithe spaces between the cells into channels which assist in the circulation oextra-cellular fluid (much like stirring coffee helps dissolve the sugar faster) providing an additional mechanism for the efficient exchange of nutrients and waste products between the bloodstream and the individual cells. Thus we see that the meridians do indeed nourish the tissues! We can also understand why pain could be related to stagnation of this flow, since this would be functionally similar to the pain caused by the accumulation of lactic acid in muscle tissue from overexertion. In this case, the pain is the result of the accumulation of waste products in the tissues combined with the impaired availability of nutrients. As verified by their research, acupuncture is capable of adjusting the rate of the flow, thus relieving the pain and speeding up the healing process.
In inflammatory conditions, this mechanism both helps reduce inflammation by assisting in the removal of accumulated fluids and metabolic wastes and speeds healing by enhancing the availability of nutrients and cellular building blocks during the regeneration phase.
Degeneration usually occurs either as a result of chronic inflammation or from impaired circulation to an area leading to a breakdown in cellular function. Stimulation of the circulation of extracellular fluid through acupuncture can and usually does help correct both kinds of problems.
Their research represents a breakthrough in acupuncture science, for not only does it provide new insights into what the meridians are, it also provides us with a valuable (though expensive) tool to study the wide variety of energetic principles used in the practice of acupuncture. Already, their research has demonstrated the validity of a number of these concepts.

  1. D.E. Kendall, Scientific Model for Acupuncture, American Journal of Acupuncture, vol. ii. No 3, pp 251.258, September 1989 ,’,ä vol. E7, No. 4, December, 1989.
    2. Do Chit Lee, M,Ng 0., Lee, Donald H. Clifford, Lucius E. Mont, (Medical College of Ohio), The Automie Effects of Acupuncture and Analgesic Drugs on the Cardiovascular System. American Journal of Acupuncture. Vol. 10, No. I, Jan’,March, 1982. pp 5-31.
    3. Dr. Damns, MD and Dr. De Vernejoul, MD, Vt,Visualization of the Acupuncture Pathways. A video tape of their lectures and elide presentations given alt the World Congress on tho-Energetic Medicine in 3985 (sponsored by the World Rematch Foundation (818) 907-5483) can be obtained by contacting the clinic.
  2. WHAT CAN I EXPECT IF TREATED?
    Many conditions may be alleviated very rapidly by acupuncture and herbs; however, some conditions which have arisen over a course of years will be relieved only with slow, steady progress. As in any form of healing, the patient’s attitude, diet, determination and lifestyle will affect the outcome of a course of treatment. Traditional Oriental medicine is also an educational process in which the patient becomes more aware of his or her own body, thus increasing
    its ability to maintain well-being.
    Although there are techniques in Oriental medicine for healing most conditions, there are medical circumstances which can be dealt with more effectively by Western medicine. In such cases, your acupuncturist will recommend that you contact a physician. As is the case in China, acupuncture should be seen as complementary to Western medicine.
  3. IS ACUPUNCTURE SAFE?
    In the hands of a Certified Acupuncturist, your safety is assured. In our clinic, the needles used are sterilized and disposable and are not reused. This eliminates the risk of infection.

IS ACUPUNCTURE PAINFUL?
Acupuncture bears no resemblance to the feeling of receiving an injection, since the main source of pain from injections is the large diameter, hollow needle and the medication being forced into the tissue by pressure. Acupuncture needles are very fine and flexible, about the diameter of a thick hair. In most cases, insertion by a skilled practitioner is performed with a minimum of discomfort. Most patients find the treatments very relaxing and some fall asleep during the treatments. For patients who are particularly fearful of needles, non-needle stimulation of points in the ear (Auriculotherapy) is especially effective. there are also techniques which don’t use needles at all such as using magnets or pellets.

For a more complete description of how acupuncture works, read my book “”Acupuncture and Stroke, a Personal Experience” (not yet released)where I discuss it in more detail.