How Does Acupuncture Work? A Western Perspective

As an acupuncturist the most frequent question I get from my patients is, “How does acupuncture work?” This is a simple question that requires much more than a simple answer.

acupuncture work

Acupuncture is amazing because it doesn’t just work in one way. It stimulates many systems in the body and can help treat everything from pain to anxiety and depression to a weakened immune system.

When these areas are stimulated by a needle, strong messages get sent to the brain, which then affect the whole body.

I usually begin with the western science terminology, since it is what most of us are most familiar with. The body is made up of bones and muscles, nerves and blood vessels, all interconnected with tissue and governed by our organs. Acupuncture points are located in specific places, for distinct reasons. Anatomically, most acupuncture points are located in areas near large nerve bundles or concentrated nerve endings. That means that when these areas are stimulated by a needle, strong messages get sent to the brain, which then affect the whole body. Through their connection with the brain, some points then have secondary effects on the internal organs and can lead to decreased pain and/or changes in how the cells are working. Acupuncture points also increase white blood cells to give your immune system greater fighting power. Inserting a needle into the skin creates a response in that area which increases blood flow and lymph circulation. Lymph is the fluid between cells that contains white blood cells and nutrients to bath the tissue. Lymph plays a vital role in delivering these nutrients to damaged tissues for repair and then clearing out the damaged products1)Inanç, B. B. (2015). A New Theory on the Evaluation of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture Mechanisms from the Latest Medical Scientific Point of View. Acupunc Electro-Therapeut Res Acupuncture & Electro-Therapeutics Research, 40(3), 189-204. doi:10.3727/036012915×14473562232987.

Endorphins

Acupuncture has been shown to increase levels of endorphins in the body. Endorphins are the molecules responsible for the “runner’s high”, but they are also a critically important substance for blocking pain stimuli. Not only does an acupuncture treatment leave you with less pain, but you’ll have the added emotional benefit of increased endorphins. Increased endorphins combat anxiety, depression and balance mood swings. Endorphins are the reason we love exercise. Though some days seem like a grueling battle to get to the end of the workout, the flush of endorphins we receive at the end is the body’s way of thanking you for your hard work. A consistent schedule of exercise (CrossFit) and Acupuncture are two of the best ways to take care of your mind and body!

Needle Technique

acupuncture moov

Different rotations of the needle have been shown to have varying effects on the connective tissue

A crucial part of any acupuncture treatment is how the needles are inserted into the body. There are many different techniques of inserting and simulating the needles. Some techniques such as “burning the mountain” or “cooling the sky” use rotational movements of the needle to affect the body. There is much more to these techniques than fun names; different rotations of the needle have been shown to have varying effects on the connective tissue (the part of our bodies that surrounds and supports our cells and connects all the pieces together). When the there is tension on the connective tissue, cells up to several centimeters away start responding to the stimulus to help decrease pain and relieve areas of tension((Langevin, H. M., Bouffard, N. A., Churchill, D. L., & Badger, G. J. (2007). Connective Tissue Fibroblast Response to Acupuncture: Dose-Dependent Effect of Bidirectional Needle Rotation. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(3), 355-360. doi:10.1089/acm.2007.6351).

Summary

Acupuncture is often referred to as “alternative medicine”, but more and more research is showing that it has efficacy and results that parallel other more western treatment modalities. These are just the highlights of a few ways in which acupuncture provides very observable effects on the body. As you think about the ways in which you want to better your overall health, consider acupuncture among your treatment options.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I will explain the basics of acupuncture from the perspective of Chinese Medicine and enumerate even more ways that acupuncture can help you lead a happier, healthier life…

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References   [ + ]

1.Inanç, B. B. (2015). A New Theory on the Evaluation of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture Mechanisms from the Latest Medical Scientific Point of View. Acupunc Electro-Therapeut Res Acupuncture & Electro-Therapeutics Research, 40(3), 189-204. doi:10.3727/036012915×14473562232987