Background Information About Acupuncture
The practice of acupuncture is thought to have begun over 2000 years ago with the discovery that the stimulation of specific areas on the skin can affect the functioning of the organs of the body. Acupuncture has developed into a system of medicine that restores and maintains health by the insertion of fine needles into these points just beneath the surface of the skin. According to Chinese Medical Theory, qi (or life-force) travels along pathways called meridians, bringing energy, blood and nourishment to all the tissues of the body. Acupuncture stimulates the movement of qi & blood in the body so that obstructions are moved from these channels, or qi in certain areas is strengthened or reinforced thereby correcting imbalances that produce pain or dysfunction. This process of stimulating the movement of qi and blood brings the body back into balance allowing natural healing to occur. Acupuncture is effective to modify or prevent pain perception and to normalize the body’s physiological functions.
Over the past 30- 40 years acupuncture has become more popular in the Western world, leading patients and researchers to question how it works. Unless you accept the traditional Chinese understanding of human physiology, this is a difficult question to answer. So far, no single scientific explanation has been able to account for all the different effects acupuncture has been shown to produce, however, several of the most common theories are described below.
How does Acupuncture work from a Western perspective?
Broadly speaking, acupuncture has three primary effects:
- It relieves pain
- It reduces inflammation
- It restores homeostasis
Several mechanisms have been identified to explain how acupuncture works. Although the mechanisms can be quite complex, ultimately acupuncture is a remarkably simple technique that depends entirely upon one thing: the stimulation of the peripheral nervous system. A large body of evidence indicates that acupoints have an 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.”
The following is a list of mechanisms that have been identified so far:
- Acupuncture promotes blood flow:
Oxygen, nutrients, immune substances, hormones, analgesics & anti-inflammatories are transported in the blood. Getting more blood flow to the site of an injury can assist healing. For more info click here.
- 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 tissues through the nervous, endocrine & immune system. As the body heals the micro traumas induced by acupuncture it also heals any surrounding tissue damage left over from old (or new) injuries.
- Acupuncture releases natural painkillers:
Inserting a needle sends a signal through the nervous system to the brain where chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine & enkephalins are released. Some of these substances are 10-200 times more potent than morphine.
- Acupuncture reduces both the intensity & perception of chronic pain
After completing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of 12 people who experienced some type of pain, scientists at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey compared those images to the images of the same 12 people after acupuncture. In the pictures of the brain before acupuncture, the area of the brain that shows pain was lit up with activity. In the pictures after each patient’s acupuncture treatment, the color in the area that was lit up with activity had decreased by 60 to 70 percent. For more info click here.
- Acupuncture relaxes contracted or spasming muscles: thereby releasing pressure on joints, tendons & nerves & promotes blood flow.
- Acupuncture reduces stress:
Recent research suggests that acupuncture stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone and signaling substance that regulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Most of us have heard of the “fight or flight” response that is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system has been called the “rest & digest” or “calm-& connect” system, and in many ways is the opposite of the sympathetic system. Recent research has implicated an impaired parasympathetic nervous system in a wide range of autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis & inflammatory bowel disease. For more info click here and here.
Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part IV): Chris Kessler, 2010
What does Acupuncture treat?
Most people know that Acupuncture is very effective for acute and chronic pain conditions. However, acupuncture has also been found to be effective for many other conditions. Based on research and clinical experience, the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health have acknowledged acupuncture as effective for hundreds of conditions:
Pain: headaches/migraines, neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, knee pain, tendonitis, bursitis, arthritis, sciatic pain, sprains, jaw pain (TMJ)
Sleep and stress: insomnia, nervous tension, irritability
Emotional/mental health: anxiety, depression
Gynecological: irregular, painful periods, PMS, menopausal issues
Neurological: facial paralysis, facial spasm, trigeminal neuralgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, shingles
Skin disorders: acne, eczema, hives
Respiratory: cold, sore throat, sinusitis, asthma, bronchitis
Digestive: gastritis, ulcers, nausea, heartburn, bloating, IBS, Crohn’s disease, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, indigestion
Urinary tract problems: incontinence/frequent urination
Ear, nose, eyes, teeth: ear infections, dry eyes, sore throat, toothache
Other: smoke addiction, obesity, alcoholism, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, dizziness, poor circulation
Shaozong, C. Modern acupuncture theory and its clinical application. (Chapter 5 The Morphologic Relationship between Points and Nerves). International Journal of Clinical Acupuncture. 2001:121(2):149-158