What is acupuncture and how does it work?
Making that call to book your very first acupuncture appointment can seem like walking into the unknown. Many who visit me in my practice do so after hearing about an effective experience a friend or colleague had, or from reading about acupuncture in an article. They’re intrigued to know if acupuncture can benefit them but don’t understand how little, hair-like needles can help their condition or relieve pain.
There are two ways to approach the explanation: one using traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the other with western biomedical functions.
The traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) explanation
Traditional acupuncture works on the premises of meridian theory: that qi (pronounced chee), or energy, travels in pathways (we call them channels) through the body. Sometimes, due to lifestyle and environmental reasons, this flow of qi can be disrupted or blocked which can result in some symptoms of pain or illness. In certain instances, traditional acupuncture can be an effective therapy to help restore balance and promote physical and emotional harmony.
Imagine a traffic jam during rush hour. Cars are blocking the road and no one can get anywhere. You start to feel tense around the neck and shoulders, you’re getting tired and annoyed, and oh no, now you need the bathroom as well.
Blocked energy in your body is just as bad. Illness or pain can result when this flow of qi is disrupted or blocked. Acupuncture works on rebalancing the body’s qi naturally without medication.
Now, if the traffic jam was suddenly removed: it would be a great feeling, right?
Along the channels are acupuncture points which are like junctions on a motorway, allowing access to the meridians. The acupuncture points are gateways to influence, redirect, and increase or decrease the body’s flow of qi, blood and vital substances to address many of the body’s imbalances.
At its simplest, acupuncture is the practice of inserting sterile hair-fine needles to an acupuncture point but that is like sticking your hand out to hail a taxi when there are none around. Now if you catch a cab driver’s attention and s/he takes you as a passenger you have achieved success. In the same way, acupuncturists believe stimulating the qi in the channels somehow signals to the body’s system what it needs to do to resolve the condition.
The western science explanation
In spite of some excellent research designed to answer how acupuncture works, there are currently no clear, simple answers available. This is largely due to the fact acupuncture has a variety of therapeutic effects on the body and so the action depends on the type of pathology. Pain (and therefore pain relief) is the area in which the most research has been done; hence most of the theories about the mechanisms of acupuncture relate to issues of pain.
The most popular modern scientific explanation is that needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release morphine-like substances to help deal with the pain. Nerve fibres travel from the acupuncture points to the spinal cord, and from there they continue on to the brain stem and hypothalamus-pituitary gland. Stimulation of these areas in the brain and spinal cord cause the release of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, that cause inhibition of nerve pain fibres.
Animal studies have shown that acupuncture can alter the release of various hormones and neurotransmitters. These affect the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes that regulate blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature.