How Acupuncture Works

Acupuncture is one form of therapy used with the system of healing referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Oriental Medicine. TCM also includes herbology, nutrition, physical therapy and special exercises such at Tai Chi and Qi Gong.

It is difficult to relate what it took the Chinese thousands of years to develop into a quick explanation, but the short version is that we all have 12 main channels or “meridians”of energy and these meridians are easily accessible by”needling”. Since energy constantly flows up and down these pathways, the connections between them ensure that there is an even circulation of Qi (pronounced chee). A person’s health is influenced by the flow of Qi in one’s body. Disruptions can occur if the flow of Qi is insufficient, unbalanced or interrupted and these disruptions manifest as pain, illness or generally poor health. Acupuncture is used to restore balance.

Still, the idea persists that somehow acupuncture is mystifying or peculiar. Why is this? Why is this time-tested medical method so difficult to explain? Possibly because we use a non-scientific nomenclature different from the medical jargon that all of us grew up with. Take “Qi” for example. The Chinese idea of Qi is probably the most fundamental concept in acupuncture but is not easily translated into western thought. Practitioners of TCM commonly define Qi as the essential life force that circulates throughout the body. The Chinese character for Qi depicts steam arising from cooking rice. The form of Qi represents energy, steam, gas, essence, the movement of blood and fluids, and may be material or immaterial .Qi, therefore, reflects our spirit and our physical body. In TCM, without the functions of Qi, there would be no life in beings. And what are we to make of the “meridians” where Qi flows? The body can be cut and explored to see the existence of the circulatory and nervous systems but how do we really know that “meridians” exist? You can’t see Qi or meridians so TCM diagnosis often is unfathomable to a patient. Informed that their diagnosis is, for example, “Kidney Qi deficiency with dampness” may leave a patient totally stumped and wondering what’s wrong with their kidneys and why are they damp when all they came in for was treatment of a sore knee.

Many conventional healthcare professionals who practice acupuncture, including medical doctors and even some traditionally trained acupuncturists, have dispensed with such concepts. In western medicine, acupuncture points are thought to correspond to physiological and anatomical features such as peripheral nerve junctions, and diagnosis is made in purely conventional terms. Diagnosing a problem in TCM terms that express an energetic imbalance has been abandoned. Western medical thinking has, however, come to acknowledge the biochemical and cellular activity that acupuncture can affect. The western perspective of acupuncture identifies three possible mechanisms of action:

1. Conduction of electromagnetic signals: Western scientists have found evidence that acupuncture points are strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. Stimulating points along these pathways through acupuncture enables electromagnetic signals to be relayed at a greater rate than under normal conditions. These signals may start the flow of pain-killing biochemicals, such as endorphins, and of immune system cells to specific sites in the body that are injured or vulnerable to disease.

2. Activation of opiod systems: Research has found that several types of opiods may be released in the central nervous system during acupuncture treatment, thereby reducing pain.

3. Changes in brain chemistry, sensation and involuntary body functions: Studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemstry by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones in a good way. Acupuncture also has been documented to affect the parts of the central nervous system such as immune reactions and processes whereby a person’s blood pressure, blood flow and body temperature are regulated.

Explaining acupuncture from this perspective certainly makes acupuncture more “user friendly” and familiar for the western M.D. trained to require scientific “proof” that is within the western medicine paradigm. But speaking as a TCM trained acupuncturist, I think if we only look at the western medicine perspective of how acupuncture works and abandon the energetic framework described in TCM by such terms as yin, yang and Qi, we diminish an ancient and powerful medicine. Subjecting acupuncture to the rigors of modern science for an explanation of how it works is good for validating its techniques and efficacy, but we must acknowledge the uncommon language and sometimes mystifying TCM energetic explanations of acupuncture to take full advantage of this ancient time-proven technique.

James Rodowca, L.Ac.