How Acupuncture Works

Here's a great explanation of acupuncture by Chris Kresser, L.Ac:

Acupuncture effects every major system of the body, including the cardiac, gastrointestinal, circulatory, cerebral, genitourinary, endocrine and immune systems. It would take an entire book to describe all of the mechanisms involved, and in fact there is such a book for those who are interested in that level of detail. In this post my purpose is to summarize that research in a way that’s easy for lay people to understand, while providing links to more technical resources for medical professionals and others that might be interested.

Broadly speaking, acupuncture has three primary effects:

  1. It relieves pain.
  2. It reduces inflammation.
  3. It restores homeostasis.

Homeostasis refers to the body’s ability to regulate its environment and maintain internal balance. All diseases involve a disturbance of homeostasis, and nearly all diseases involve some degree of pain and inflammation. In fact, research over the last several decades suggests that many serious conditions like heart disease previously thought to have other causes are in fact primarily caused by chronic inflammation. If we understand that most diseases are characterized by pain, inflammation and disturbance of homeostasis, we begin to understand why acupuncture can be effective for so many conditions.

Several modes of action have been identified for acupuncture, which I’ll discuss below. The mechanisms can get quite complex. But ultimately acupuncture is a remarkably simple technique that depends entirely upon one thing: the stimulation of the peripheral nervous system. It’s important to point out that when nerves supplying acupoints are cut or blocked there is no acupuncture effect.

A large body of evidence indicates that acupoints, or “superficial nodes” as they are more accurately translated, have abundant supply of nerves. According to Chen Shaozong, “For 95% of all points in the range of 1.0 cm around a point, there exist nerve trunks or rather large nerve branches.” 1

The following is a list of mechanisms that have been identified so far:

  • Acupuncture promotes blood flow. This is significant because everything the body needs to heal is in the blood, including oxygen, nutrients we absorb from food, immune substances, hormones, analgesics (painkillers) and anti-inflammatories. Restoring proper blood flow is vital to promoting and maintaining health. For example if blood flow is diminished by as little as 3% in the breast area cancer may develop. Blood flow decreases as we age and can be impacted by trauma, injuries and certain diseases. Acupuncture has been shown to increase blood flow and vasodilation in several regions of the body.
  • Acupuncture stimulates the body’s built-in healing mechanisms.Acupuncture creates “micro traumas” that stimulate the body’s ability to spontaneously heal injuries to the tissue through nervous, immune and endocrine system activation. As the body heals the micro traumas induced by acupuncture, it also heals any surrounding tissue damage left over from old injuries.
  • Acupuncture releases natural painkillers. Inserting a needle sends a signal through the nervous system to the brain, where chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin are released. Some of these substances are 10-200 times more potent than morphine!
  • Acupuncture reduces both the intensity and perception of chronic pain. It does this through a process called “descending control normalization”, which involves the serotonergic nervous system. 2 I will explain this process in further detail in the next post.
  • Acupuncture relaxes shortened muscles. This in turn releases pressure on joint structures and nerves, and promotes blood flow.
  • Acupuncture reduces stress. This is perhaps the most important systemic effect of acupuncture. Recent research suggests that acupuncture stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone and signaling substance that regulates the parasympathetic nervous system. You’ve probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response that is governed by the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system has been called the “rest-and-digest” or “calm-and-connect” system, and in many ways is the opposite of the sympathetic system. Recent research has implicated impaired parasympathetic function in a wide range of autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Several other mechanisms have been identified, but the ones I’ve listed above are the most relevant and clearly understood.Acupuncture effects every major system of the body, including the cardiac, gastrointestinal, circulatory, cerebral, genitourinary, endocrine and immune systems. It would take an entire book to describe all of the mechanisms involved, and in fact there is such a book for those who are interested in that level of detail. In this post my purpose is to summarize that research in a way that’s easy for lay people to understand, while providing links to more technical resources for medical professionals and others that might be interested.

Oriental Medicine

Oriental Medicine, which originated in China as many as 5000 years ago, is the world’s oldest medical system. Due to its clinical success and its usefulness in achieving and maintaining mental, emotional, and physical health Oriental Medicine has become increasingly popular in the Western World and its popularity continues to grow.

Oriental Medicine originated in a culture and a time when people were very aware of themselves as an integral part of nature and their environment. The fundamental theories of Chinese Medicine were built upon observations of the natural world and its cycles. The human being was seen as an extension of the natural world; a microcosm subject to the same rhythms, influences, and laws as the universe. Eastern philosophy is based on the premise that all life occurs within the circle of nature. As Western culture becomes more acutely aware of our connection to nature and as we strive to live in harmony with nature in modern society, the concepts of Oriental Philosophy and Medicine are becoming increasingly embraced by the Western mind.

In development for millennia, Oriental Medicine is a complete and comprehensive system of diagnosing and treating an individual to bring about health and harmony to the ever-evolving human life. Oriental Medicine diagnosis relies on careful observation of the signs in the patient and the practitioner’s ability to interpret those signs in relation to the whole person. This is based on the idea that no one part can be understood except in its relation to the whole. The practitioner looks (at the face, the eyes, the body, etc.), listens (to the patients complaints and symptoms while noting the manner of expression), and senses (by palpating the pulse, the abdomen, and the channels). Once the practitioner identifies the root of the patient’s imbalance a treatment prescription will be picked out using any one or a combination of treatment modalities.

Treatment Techniques
Acupuncture is the insertion of fine needles on various points on the body to influence the flow of qi (vital energy), blood, and fluids in the meridian system. The meridian system is the theoretical basis of the practice of acu
puncture. The meridian network is a map of pathways on the body that carry qi, blood, and fluids and connect different body parts and internal organs and tissues. The flow of qi in the Meridian System concentrates or "injects" in certain areas of the skin's surface. These areas are very small points, otherwise known as "acupuncture points". Although acupuncture points are located externally and superficially, they can affect the internal functions of our body. There are 12 main meridians and 365 main acupuncture points, and each point belongs to a particular meridian channel that connects to specific organs. When the flow of qi, blood, and fluids is unobstructed, the organs and tissues are properly nourished and able to perform their various functions to maintain the organism’s health. The goal of acupuncture treatment is to restore balance to the flow of body's qi, allowing the person's body, mind, and spirit to heal and to alleviate the symptoms for which the person has sought treatment.

Herbal Medicine:
Chinese herbal medicine works with acupuncture and the other modalities of oriental medicine to restore balance and health to the body. Chinese herbal medicine makes use of many different herbal substances (more than 450 substances are commonly used today, most are of plant origin, although some mineral and animal substances are occasionally used). Herbal therapies are generally formula based and single herbs are rarely used. Oriental Medicine holds that every medicinal substance has its strengths and its shortcomings, therefore each ingredient in the formula should be carefully balanced with other ingredients, in order to accentuate its efficacy while reducing side effects. Also, combining various herbs in a formula enables the formula to address the unique health concerns of each individual person as well as treat multiple health concerns at the same time.
Chinese herbal formulas are developed to address not only the symptoms, but to address the root, or cause of the symptoms as well.

Ear Acupuncture (Auricular Acupuncture):
The WHO (World Health Organization) defined auricular acupuncture as a microsystem of acupuncture, meaning that the entire body is reflected in the anatomy of the ear and points located on the ear can thus be effective in treating any condition of the body, mind, and spirit. Ear acupuncture is usually done in conjunction with a regular acupuncture treatment to enhance the effects of a particular treatment. Ear acupuncture is also practiced on its own, most commonly as an effective treatment for addiction.

Cupping is a non-invasive method of applying acupressure to specific areas of the body by creating a vacuum next to the patient's skin. Cupping involves placing glass, plastic, or bamboo cups on the skin with a vacuum. The primary purpose of cupping is to move stagnant qi and blood thereby relieving tension and pain. In addition to musculoskeletal pain, cupping is an effective treatment for many respiratory diseases including the common cold, pneumonia, and bronchitis as well as digestive problems, particularly those involving gastric or intestinal pain.
Cupping treatment itself is generally painless, or even pleasant in sensation. However some red marks or bruising on the body may occur, since treatment causes blood to be drawn to the surface of the skin. Such marks usually dissipate within a few hours or days.

Gua Sha:
Gua Sha is a method of stimulation of the skin, in which a smooth edged instrument is used to stroke the surface of the skin. Such stimulation results in the appearance of small red spots on the skin (called sha) that typically fade in two to three days.
Gua sha promotes circulation and metabolic processes providing relief from pain, stiffness, fever, chills, coughing, nausea, and other symptoms. Much like cupping, gua sha is effective in the treatment of musculoskeletal pain conditions, acute infectious illness, upper respiratory, and digestive problems.

Moxibustion works with acupuncture and the other modalities of Oriental to restore balance and health to the person. Moxibustion is the use of the herb mugwort (artemsia vulgaris), called moxa in chinese, to apply heat directly or indirectly to the body in order to warm body regions and acupuncture points, stimulate circulation, encourage a smooth flow of blood and qi, and protect against cold and dampness.
Moxibustion is particularly effective in the treatment of chronic problems, "deficient conditions", and in those with a weak or debilitated constitution. Moxa has shown to be clinically effective for treatment of common ailments such as acute and chronic pain, digestive disorders, women's disorders, and sexual dysfunction.

Based on theories of Oriental Medicine, Shiatsu originated in Japan in the early part of the 20th century. Although shiatsu means ‘finger pressure’ in Japanese, in practice a practitioner uses touch, comfortable pressure and manipulative techniques to adjust the body’s physical structure and balance its energy flow. It is a deeply relaxing experience and regular treatments can alleviate stress and illness and maintain health and well-being.
Ohashiatsu was originated by Ohashi, who founded Ohashi Institute in NY in 1974. Ohashi’s method is a unique method of healing touch, which is based on traditional shiatsu, exercise, and Zen philosophy. Ohashi took traditional shiatsu to the next level by focusing on the practitioner’s awareness of their core or center (harain Japanese). By cultivating the energy in the hara the practitioner is able to develop a more sensitive and fluid style of movement. This softness and fluidity allows for improved diagnostic skills through palpation as well as a deeply relaxing and comfortable experience for the receiver. Both giver and receiver benefit in this symbiotic exchange of healing energy.

Shoni Shin
Shonishin pediatric acupuncture (sho=little, ni=children, shin=needle) is a specialized form of treatment for infants and children that originated in Japan. Shonishin techniques involve the use of small metal tools of different shapes with various edges.  These tools are used in stroking, rubbing, tapping, and pressing the skin to give different kinds of gentle stimulation. These techniques harmonize and fortify the child’s vital energy, and strengthen the child’s constitution.

Children’s bio-energetic systems are not fully formed and, being at the most “yang” phase of their existence, their energy (Qi) moves extremely rapidly. Consequently, children’s systems can be easily over stimulated, and health problems can progress rapidly.

Treatment of children with a variety of methods offered by Oriental Medicine can be very beneficial to their current and future health.  Most of our chronic health issues often arise in childhood and beginning proper nutritional, lifestyle, and natural medicine practices early on in life can prevent disharmony from taking root in our bodies.