How Acupuncture Works

There is evidence that some form of acupuncture was used in China 5,000 years ago. Throughout its long history Acupuncture has embraced a wide variety of different traditions. Based on naturalistic theories and careful observations of patterns of health and disease, Acupuncture shows us how we can live in harmony with the heavens and earth, the weather and the cycle of the seasons to optimise our potential. From the late 19th century, practitioners saw the need to modernise their tradition to adapt to a rapidly changing society. From 1954 onwards, with the encouragement of Mao Zedong, it became the symbol of China’s cultural genius, and the major colleges were founded.

Acupuncture embraces concepts and terminology that don’t always fit comfortably with a western medical understanding of human biology. For example, Chinese medicine involves the concept of Qi, which has no equivalent in western thought.

Western Biomedical Model

From the biomedical viewpoint, acupuncture is seen to work by stimulating certain sensitive and reactive places on the body. When needles are inserted into these points, they activate the endogenous descending inhibitory pain control pathways and stimulate other central nervous system changes. This prompts the body to release natural pain killing substances, known as endorphins, which enter into the nerve pathways of the brain and spinal cord and help to relieve pain in the corresponding part of the body. For example, acupuncture needles are inserted into the tender areas of muscle in the neck and shoulders to treat headaches. There is good evidence that the effects of acupuncture are sustained, and increase during a course of treatment.

The release of other substances, such as serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone, as a result of acupuncture stimulation, may explain the sense of well-being that many patients experience as a result of treatment. Brain scans of people receiving acupuncture show complex reactions in the central nervous system, and further research in this area may help our understanding of the ‘holistic’ effects of acupuncture.

Chinese medical theory model

Chinese medicine has an understanding of the way the body and mind works which is broader and more general than the biomedical model. It is a holistic system that sees symptoms in the context of a dynamic living organism, and accommodates the varied relationships between different parts of the body. One of the theories it uses to describe this dynamic set of relationships is Qi, commonly translated as ‘life force’ or ‘energy’.

Rather than being a physical ‘thing’, ‘Qi’ describes, or provides a framework for describing, the activities and movements that make up relationships in the natural world.

Qi is described as flowing through meridians, which are channels in the body. When the Qi flows freely, the body is healthy, and we feel well. If Qi stops flowing freely, or stagnates, we start to notice stiffness, pain or a compromise of function in the area of the stagnation. Acupuncture treatment aims to restore this flow (and thus restore normal function) by stimulating the relevant acupuncture points.

Chinese medicine is a rich source of interesting and dynamic theory explaining the functions of the internal organs and their relationships, the causes of disease, the substances and fluids of the body and their quality and circulation. This approach does not differentiate between mind and body, seeing the two as inextricably inter-related, and focuses on treating the individual, rather than the disease.

If you are interested in finding out more about Chinese medical theory, I recommend the following books, journals and websites.

Books for more serious readers

  • Maciocia G. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, (1989) Churchill Livingstone
  • Kaptchuk T Chinese Medicine – The Web That Has No Weaver. (2000) Contemporary Books

Journals

Web sites