As a practicing acupuncturist and herbalist, I am frequently asked, “How does it work?” I outline some of the major theories below, but first I offer a bit of background that’s helpful in setting the context for the discussion.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves the use of very fine needles inserted into the skin at various anatomical locations (acupoints) around the body. This usually painless procedure achieves homeostasis and restores normal physiological function to the body. In other words, acupuncture balances the body to make it work better.
Traditional acupuncture theory states that qi and blood flow throughout the body to bring nourishment and oxygen to all the body’s internal organs, muscles and related tissues. When a blockage occurs in this vital flow, disease results. The cause of this blockage may include poor diet, lack of exercise, stress or physical trauma.
Acupuncture seeks to restore the flow of qi – a Chinese term for vital energy or life force, believed to regulate a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance – by unblocking the “meridians” associated with the area of disease or imbalance. A meridian is a vertically oriented pathway on the body that connects acupuncture points. There are 14 major meridians encompassing more than 360 acupoints.
How does acupuncture work?
A Western medical perspective
In general, acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system, which in turn releases chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord and brain. These chemicals either alter the experience of pain or release other chemicals that influence the body’s self-regulating systems. These biochemical changes may stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well-being.
Following are some of the current major theories on how acupuncture works.
The neurovascular theory, proposed by researcher Dr. Donald E. Kendall, is one of the only peer-reviewed theories on the mechanisms of acupuncture. Inserting a needle into a body creates micro-trauma that sets off a cascade of events:
• There is a local tissue response and a concurrent stimulation of the nervous system via nocioceptive and proprioceptive fibers.
• Those signals are integrated locally and in the brain.
• The brain responds with a descending control signal back down to the site of insertion. Several changes can take place, including pain inhibition, release of muscle contracture, increased blood flow and inhibition of autonomic motor fibers that normalize organ activity.
Evidence suggests that acupuncture points are strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. Stimulating these points enables electromagnetic signals to be relayed at greater-than-normal rates. These signals may start the flow of painkilling biochemicals, such as endorphins, or release immune system cells to specific body sites.
Considerable research supports the claim that acupuncture releases opiods, synthetic or naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that may reduce pain or induce sleep. These chemicals may explain acupuncture’s pain-relieving effects.
Stimulation of hypothalamus,
Joined at the base of the brain, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands are responsible for many bodily functions. The hypothalamus activates and controls part of the nervous system – the endocrine processes – as well as many bodily functions, such as sleep, regulation of temperature and appetite. The pituitary gland supplies some of the body’s needed hormones. Stimulation of these glands can result in a broad spectrum of effects on various body systems.
Change in secretion of
Studies suggest that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry in a positive way. This is accomplished by changing the release of neurotransmitters (biochemical substances that stimulate or inhibit nerve impulses) and neurohormones (naturally occurring chemical substances that can either impact the activity or change the structure or function of a body organ).
Ted Ray, L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in private practice in Mountain View and Woodside. For more information, call 564-9002 or visit www.peninsulaacupuncture.com.