My last post, about coping with change, raised the question, “How does acupuncture work, anyway?” I mentioned that inserting certain needles can “open the floodgates” and many people asked, “How?” This is the “million dollar” question, isn’t it? Everyone wants to know how acupuncture really works.
The truth is that, from a Western science point of view, no one knows for sure. The Chinese Medicine explanation is more consistent, and more poetic, something I like. As I do for patients in my office, I’ll give you both.
Importantly, science has proven that acupuncture does work, even though no one has come up with the detailed mechanism. Numerous studies have shown that acupuncture reduces pain in osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, reduces chemotherapy induced nausea, increases success rate for in-vitro fertilizations, helps asthma and bladder control problems, and on and on. Studies have also shown that acupuncture “somehow” causes the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and others, anti-inflammatory agents such as prostaglandins, eventually increasing C-reactive protein (an indicator of less inflammation in the body), and that it can modulate the immune system, increasing white or red blood cells, or decreasing reactivity in allergy cases.
Many postulate that acupuncture does this by affecting the central nervous system. The needles sometimes come close to nerve pathways, and scientists have seen increased activity in certain areas of the brain by MRI when acupuncture points are stimulated. However, this had not been able to explain all the effects of acupuncture. We now know that acupoints are areas where there are increased numbers of not only nerve endings, but also certain types of cells and vessels. Stimulating these areas with needles causes a large and complex cascade of events that is difficult to unravel and explain, but has a marked effect!
Recently, I also came across another explanation. Electrical charges are found everywhere, and in every cell in our bodies. At acupoints and along the meridians that acupuncturists say exist, there is less electrical resistance, meaning it is easier for electricity to flow through those areas. In areas where an acupoint is out of balance, the electrical charges in the cells in that area are often scrambled. When an acupuncture needle is inserted, the charges line up. Research in this area is ongoing, but recent studies have shown promising results.
This last corresponds more closely to the way Chinese Medicine says acupuncture works. For thousands of years, Chinese Medicine practitioners have intimately examined the workings and feelings of their own and other’s bodies. They discovered that there is something they decided to name “Qi” (pronounced “Chee”), that also exists everywhere, but tends to run through 14 major channels or meridians in the body. The pathways of these meridians have been mapped out or charted, and the major acupuncture points lie along these pathways.
In a very healthy, pain free person, the flow of Qi in these channels runs smoothly, but when there is pain or imbalance in health, the Qi is often blocked, or sometimes weak or excessive. Inserting needles in the appropriate points along the channels “magnetizes” the Qi (in Chinese Medicine, we speak of the sensation sometimes felt when a needle is inserted as “De Qi”, the arrival of Qi), and thereby clears any blockages, opening the flow. With certain kinds of techniques and a good practitioner, the amount of Qi can also be reduced or increased. When the flow is opened or modulated, it can relieve pain in that area, and it also allows flow along the pathway to internal organs, to promote all kinds of other health benefits, depending on the channel stimulated.
So that’s it, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what we know about how acupuncture works in a nutshell. Maybe that’s already more than you need, “TMI,” as my daughter would say. Or, if you find your interest piqued, there is now a plethora of information if you Google the science of acupuncture, or how acupuncture works. I’m also happy to answer any questions you might have as best I can, so please contact me either through this blog, in person, or by phone. Please don’t hesitate to speak up; expressing yourself also helps the flow of Qi!