acupuncture work

How Does Acupuncture Work? An Eastern Perspective

Read Part 1: How Does Acupuncture Work? A Western Perspective

The thing I remember most about my first weeks in school for Chinese medicine was thinking to myself “This makes so much sense!” I was certainly already a proponent of Chinese medicine, having been a patient for many years, but getting the inside scoop on how it all works was mind blowing. At its core, Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine are based on a system of principles that are highly logical. Once you begin “speaking the language” it all starts to make perfect sense.

acupuncture work

4 Basic Ideas

The fever is external; it’s caused by something (a virus or bacteria) coming into the body…

Every symptom can be broken down and evaluated using 4 basic ideas:

  1. Is it caused by something internal or external?
  2. Is there an element of heat or cold?
  3. Is it yin or yang in nature?
  4. Is it caused by excess or deficiency?

This is the ground level of where we begin with each patient. Take a sudden onset of a high fever for example, we can break it down using the following principles.

1) Internal or external? The fever is external; it’s caused by something (a virus or bacteria) coming into the body and stirring up trouble. Early Chinese doctors did not have germ theory but they understood it wasn’t something that just happened in the body.

2) Hot or cold? This one is easy, a fever is hot.

3) Yin or yang? The concept of yin and yang is a little more complicated. Yin is classically described as the dark side of a mountain. It is cool, quiet, and without much activity. It’s the support and frame that allows for yang to take shape. Yang is the bright side of the mountain. It is bright, warm and bustling with vibrant life and activity. By describing it as two sides of a mountain, it reminds us that they are intimately connected and one does not exist without the other…So back to the fever. A high fever could best be described as yang, the body is full of warmth and is actively fighting to battle the sickness.

4) Excess or deficient? A high fever is excess. It’s caused by something coming into the body. Deficient is for things like fatigue or a weakened immune system that is the result of long term deterioration. When things are excess they need to be cleared from the body. When something is deficient, we need to use acupuncture and herbal medicine to support the body to help regain strength.

All these ideas can be summed up in one word: Balance. The goal of every treatment is to encourage the body back to a state of balance.

Movement vs. Stagnation

Another piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fall under these 4 basic principles is the idea of movement versus stagnation. All parts of the body need to move well on their own and in relation to one another. Think of a river, when there are no obstacles or blockages, the river moves smoothly down its path. The water is clean and clear. Any debris that gets into the river is naturally washed away. If there is an obstruction in the flow of the river, the water gets murky and muddy. Debris build up. This idea can be reflected in the body. Areas of pain are often the result of obstruction from injury to the tissue. Instead of everything moving the way it should, gunk gets backed up. In western terms, the body cannot clean up the damaged areas because the clean healthy blood and lymph cannot get to the area and even if it could get there, the obstruction would prevent it from getting cleared out. As athletes we are intimately aware of what it means to stop moving. When you’re sore and you stop moving, things get tighter and more painful. We know that the best recovery from a hard workout is to keep things moving. This is why active recovery is so important.


So what does this mean for treatment with Chinese Medicine? Every time you are treated with acupuncture and Chinese medicine, your practitioner will evaluate how your symptoms stack up using these principles. If there is heat, we work to cool the body. If there is cold, we warm it up with techniques such as acupuncture and moxibustion. If something is obstructed and causing pain, we work to increase movement through the area with acupuncture, cupping, gua sha, or herbs. If you have an external invasion, like a cold or a flu, we give herbs that push the pathogen out of the body. Through western research, many of these herbs have been shown to be antiviral and antibacterial. If there is a system that is deficient, we use acupuncture, moxibustion, and herbs to support it so that the body is able to regain its innate strength.


Acupuncture channels or meridians are groups of related points that cross over the body. This is what sets acupuncture apart from some other types of therapies such as trigger point injections or dry needling. Modern Acupuncture is based thousands of years of empirical evidence. With this knowledge, ancient practitioners studied the effects of stimulating different areas. They learned which points would boost the immune system and which would calm nausea through careful and dedicated study of their patients.

Having a better understanding of some of these basic principles, you can start to see that the possibilities for acupuncture and Chinese medicine are essentially endless. Following these patterns, acupuncture can benefit nearly all symptoms and ease most conditions; it’s not just about pain. Chinese medicine can help you sleep better and have a brighter mood. It can strengthen your body’s ability to digest foods and eliminate toxins. It can also help you work out harder and keep you healthier in all aspects of your life.

Stay tuned for Part 3: How does acupuncture work? Where I will explain how these ideas related to treating acute injuries with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.