How Does Acupuncture Work?

October 31, 2019


If you’re unfamiliar with this 2,500-year-old Chinese healing art, it probably sounds far-fetched to think that inserting dozens of tiny needles into a patient’s skin can produce marked improvements in symptoms related to many ailments. However, unlike some other forms of traditional or holistic practices, acupuncture is backed up by reams of scientific data and is widely accepted by the modern medical establishment as a useful treatment technique.

But, how does acupuncture work? And, more importantly, will it work for you? 

What is acupuncture?

While no one knows exactly when acupuncture got its start, tradition holds that ancient Chinese healers noticed that some soldiers wounded by arrows in battle experienced dramatically less pain than others. Study and documentation of these occurrences led to the discovery of specific points on the skin that seemed to connect to and influence internal organs and limbs when stimulated.

The earliest written record of acupuncture that modern practitioners might recognize dates from about 100 BCE. While the practice has evolved dramatically since then, that first record included the basic concepts that still serve as the traditional foundation of the practice:

  1. Qi (pronounced chee) - an energy or life force that inhabits and animates the human body. When it is balanced and flowing properly, the individual is mentally and physically healthy. When it is unbalanced or blocked, illness occurs. 
  2. Meridians - invisible lines or conduits situated throughout the body, through which Qi flows. Acupoints exist at spots along these conduits where Qi often becomes blocked, impacting various organs or systems.
  3. Acupoints - specific points along the meridians where the insertion of an acupuncture needle and/or the application of pressure helps to unblock and balance the flow of Qi. 

The current accepted map of acupoints includes as many as 800 of these points all over the body. A standard acupuncture session follows this basic pattern:

  1. The practitioner will discuss a patient’s symptoms or work with other medical professionals to carry out a treatment plan. 
  2. They will then consult an acupoint map to determine how to best approach each treatment goal. 
  3. During the session, which usually lasts around 30 minutes, thin acupuncture needles are inserted between one and three inches into the patient at each prescribed acupoint.
  4. The needles are stimulated by hand, by vibration, or using a weak electrical charge for a prescribed amount of time before being removed. 

How does acupuncture work?

Modern science is still unsure exactly how acupuncture works. There are, however, several interesting hypotheses being studied along with a wealth of clinically documented evidence. Here are the two most popular views:

Neurohormonal pathways

This hypothesis assumes acupuncture needles stimulate the nerves with, in turn, send signals to the brain. The brain then releases neurohormones, such as beta-Endorphins, to the site of nerve stimulation. Endorphins and other similar brain chemicals are already known to have wide-ranging effects on the entire body by reducing or eliminating pain, reducing inflammation, stimulating blood flow, and having a marked impact on mood.

This seems remarkably in line with the ancient Chinese concept that acupuncture “unblocks” Qi meridians to allow for freer flow of that vital life force. 

Pro-inflammatory markers

Another possibility is that acupuncture works to reduce the number of certain proteins that can cause inflammation. When these pro-inflammatory markers build up in the body, the result is inflammation and subsequent pain or other negative symptoms. Studies have shown that acupuncture reduces these proteins, resulting in pain relief and feelings of general wellbeing. 

There is no general consensus on exactly how acupuncture works and these theories may be adjusted or eliminated as new evidence comes to light. However, it’s important to note that all the evidence indicates acupuncture is highly effective in certain circumstances, and no risks or negative side effects have been reported. As a result, even though its exact processes are not fully understood, the practice is being used by holistic and mainstream practitioners alike all over the world to treat a variety of different ailments. 

What can acupuncture treat?

The full list of ailments acupuncture is supposed to be able to treat is largely anecdotal. There are, however, clinical studies proving its efficacy for the following uses:

  • Pain management - from headaches to arthritic joints, acute pain relief is one of the most popular benefits people gain from acupuncture. There have even been thousands of surgeries performed with full or partial anesthesia provided via acupuncture. This can be incredibly important as the U.S. deals with an opioid epidemic. However, it’s proven less effective in treating some chronic pain
  • Mood disorders - acupuncture has proven highly effective for some people dealing with chronic emotional disturbances and mood disorders like anxiety, depression, ADHD, and PTSD. 
  • Fertility treatments - the evidence shows acupuncture’s hormone balancing effects can provide as much as a 33 percent greater chance of getting pregnant. 
  • Digestive issues - acupuncture can settle an upset stomach, even when the cause is medicinal, such as that caused by chemotherapy. It’s also proven highly effective in treating chronic constipation, and shows promise treating peptic ulcers.

The World Health Organization lists the following conditions for which acupuncture has proven helpful:

  • High and low blood pressure
  • Some gastric conditions including peptic ulcer
  • Painful periods
  • Dysentery
  • Allergic rhinitis
  • Morning sickness
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Muscle sprains
  • Tennis elbow
  • Sciatica
  • Dental pain
  • Reducing the risk of stroke
  • Inducing labor

Acupuncture also shows promise in treating the following conditions, though more studies need to be done:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Neuralgia
  • Addictions to alcohol, tobacco, or other substances
  • Insomnia
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes

Is acupuncture right for you?

That’s really a question you and your doctor need to discuss. However, if you’re suffering with a condition that’s listed above, there’s every reason to look into acupuncture as an option. And, there are no negative side effects to be concerned with. So, even if it turns out to be less than optimal for you personally, no harm will have been done. 

Acupuncture may or may not be covered in full or in part by your insurance, but many find it is not. A discount plan can offer welcome savings if you decide to pursue acupuncture services regularly.

Save 25% on acupuncture


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