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How Does Acupuncture Work?

Posted on August 01, 2013

Acupuncture cured my asthma. One treatment with my teacher and mentor Tom Tam, and I never used inhalers again. Period. Disbelief is the reaction that I get or a look of utter confusion when I tell people this. “Really, how?” is another typical response. One of the most common questions that I get in my practice is, “how does acupuncture work?” As an acupuncturist I find this is both a fantastic and confounding question. What most people mean when they ask this is, “how does western science explain what acupuncture is doing to my body?”

A perfectly logical and valid question. Unfortunately, I don’t always have a logical and straightforward answer. I wish I could tell people exactly how Tom stopped my asthma (and cured my cat allergies, but that’s another story), but I really can’t say for sure. The truth is that while acupuncture is a very ancient medicine that dates back thousands of years (some sources say around 3000 years old) it has only recently, since the early 1970s, become more popularized in the US. The growing popularity of acupuncture remains largely due to stories of successful acupuncture experiences being shared person to person.

Studies do exist that discuss the mechanism of acupuncture, however the truth is that many of these studies are poorly designed from a scientific point of view, or poorly designed from an acupuncture point of view, leaving us with very little insight into what really is at play when needles are inserted into the body. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that as a medical model, acupuncture and Chinese medicine involves a completely different framework of thought. Not just in the diagnostic approach, but a fundamental difference in how things are examined. Eastern logic is much less linear than western logic, which makes studying acupuncture from a western scientific framework like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

That being said there are several promising hypotheses that attempt to explain the acupuncture mechanism.

The endorphin theory: Opium addicts were given acupuncture analgesia in lieu of traditional anesthesia and it was found that following surgery those treated with acupuncture had less narcotic withdrawal than similar patients that went under traditional anesthesia. This lead researchers to believe that there was an endorphin effect taking place. Needling has been shown to affect an increase in endorphins and enkephlains (neural peptides that are often referred to as “the body’s natural painkillers”) in cerebrospinal fluid. Many patients experience a decrease in pain, even with chronic cases, which can possibly be attributed to this mechanism.

The fascia theory: Some postulate that acupuncture acts as an electrode when place in the body. The insertion of the needle is thought to activate changes in the ionic composition of the interstitial fluid, which is then rapidly conducted along the fascial lamellar planes in the body, which is a highly conductive electrolyte medium. Acupuncture meridians along the body have been shown to have distinct paths, as evidenced by the injection of radioactive tracers. When injected into points along acupuncture meridians, tracers were shown to follow a distinct trajectory, and travelled at speeds that could not be correlated to either lymphatic/vascular flow or nerve conduction. Tracers injected into non acupuncture points were shown to diffuse more slowly and randomly than those inserted into acupuncture points. There is also work that has been done that shows that acupuncture points and meridians correspond to connective tissue (fascia) cleavage planes. These ideas help to explain how a needle inserted into your hand can relieve a headache or even a lower back ache.

The immunity theory: Some believe that the insertion of an acupuncture needle into the body activates local immunomodulary factors, including locally occurring mediators of inflammation. Measurements of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) increase following acupuncture, suggesting that adrenal activation and the release of naturally occurring endogenous corticosteroids occurs when acupuncture is done. This mechanism potentially explains the decrease in inflammation and pain that many patient’s experience with acupuncture.

With acupuncture’s ever increasing popularity, due to its success in treating patients that have had little relief from traditional medical treatments, the number and quality of studies that continue to examine the mechanism of acupuncture is sure to rise. Even with the slowly growing body of evidence to support acupuncture as an efficacious medical treatment its popularity continues to grow exponentially. For many, the positive experiences that loved ones and friends have had with acupuncture is proof enough that it works, and gives them the motivation to try for themselves. If you have any questions or concerns about acupuncture please feel free to contact us or comment below for more information. We are here to help!

Eat good food and drive carefully,



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