How does acupuncture work?


This can be answered in two ways: from a Chinese perspective, and from a western perspective.

  1. Get the ‘traffic’ flowing: a Chinese perspective

Acupuncture started as part of Chinese medicine, based on oriental philosophy, which takes a holistic approach to regulating the balance of the body.

In Chinese medicine, several concepts are important in understanding how acupuncture works:

  • Yin-Yang
  • Qi (pronounced ‘chee’)
  • Internal organs
  • Channel / meridian theory
  • Five elements.

Essentially, it is about balance. When a body is healthy, Qi (or energy) and blood flow freely through the channels of the body, much as traffic flows well on clear roads. When this flow is disturbed, either through blockages or inadequate supply of Qi, Yin and Yang are thrown out of balance, and disease arises.

If a highway is blocked with traffic, that blockage must be cleared before order can be restored. Acupuncture aims to reduce or eliminate disease by restoring the flow of Qi and blood through the body’s channels.

The meridians or channels are a network of pathways between the internal organs and the skin’s surface. There are major channels, like major highways, as well as smaller branches, like small streets. This network regulates the physiological activities of the internal organs, connecting all tissues and organs into an organic whole.

Because these channels travel throughout the body, acupuncture can be used to reach a diseased area by stimulating an acupuncture point on a channel where it emerges at the skin’s surface. In this way, acupuncture stimulates the transportation of Qi and blood and the body can restore its balance.

  1. Western perspective

Western science is starting to come up with explanations for acupuncture but, despite research, there isn’t one definitive explanation for acupuncture’s effectiveness. A range of theories have been put forward, involving effects of acupuncture on:

  • neurotransmitters, e.g. serotonin and noradrenalin
  • blocking pain signals from reaching the brain (the ‘gate control theory’)
  • the circulatory system
  • the immune system.

While acupuncture has been shown scientifically to have effects outlined by these theories, none of the theories can explain all of the therapeutic effects of acupuncture. It’s possible that an understanding from a western perspective needs to incorporate all of these theories.

Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely fine, stainless steel, single-use needles into points on the skin that are associated with particular therapeutic effects. Starting at these local sites, acupuncture has a local effect that then travels through the nervous system to affect much of the body.

Acupuncture points are sites that are located along the nervous system, and they differ greatly from the surrounding tissue:

  • Higher concentration of nerve endings and fibres
  • Higher concentration of blood vessels
  • Lower electrical resistance
  • Greater lymphatic supply.

Stimulation of an acupuncture point results in micro-trauma of tissues, which leads to stimulation of the nervous system. As neural pathways are activated, blood flow is altered and the immune system is affected as nerve impulses are conducted to the central nervous system. In this way, a response at a local site travels through the entire neural axis, resulting in biochemical changes within the nervous system and then the entire body.

At a local level, when an acupuncture point is stimulated, there is tissue trauma resulting in:

  • greater blood flow to that area
  • increased local immune responsiveness
  • relaxation of the tissue and muscles.

The effects in the nervous system result in changes to the immune system and the endocrine (hormonal) system. For instance, stimulation of certain acupuncture points is known to result in the release of endorphins, which block pain receptors and aid the healing process.

An ounce of prevention…

There’s a saying in China: ‘waiting until you’re sick to get treatment is like waiting until you’re thirsty before starting to dig a well.’

No matter how the effects of acupuncture are explained, it is well recognised that acupuncture can address issues while they are still minor. Rather than waiting until clinical disease is present, minor imbalances in the body can be resolved, thus reducing stress on other physical systems.