How Does Acupuncture Work?

“How does acupuncture work?” is a question often asked by many patients. What effects do the needles have that makes acupuncture effective?

Acupuncture is a form of treatment that has been developed thousands of years ago. The Lingshu, one part of ‘Huang Di Nei Jing’ which has been a fundamental source for eastern  medicine for more than two thousand years, discusses the principles and methods of acupuncture therapy – this is one of the earliest written records of acupuncture.

The exact date when acupuncture was first used is unknown but it may have started when people used sharp objects such as twigs or stones to treat sore spots by hitting or scratching.  The needles made by stones and animal bones have been found in parts of China and Korea, suggesting that acupuncture may have existed during the Stone Age. With advancements in metallurgy, acupuncture needles were replaced with metal ones. Since then, the use of metal needles along with the accumulated experiences in treatment has shaped the acupuncture therapy we know today.

The WHO endorsed the use of acupuncture as safe and effective for the treatment of certain conditions such as pain, inflammation, poor blood circulation and regulating one’s Qi.

Acupuncture needles are not inserted into random places on the body. There are specific acupuncture points.  In current anatomical terms (simply put, modern science has not discovered them yet) acupuncture points are bundles of nerves underneath the skin that go in and out of muscles. These nerve bundles tend to have lower electrical potential differences than nerves found elsewhere.

The line that connects all the acupuncture points is called a meridian. Meridians are branch-like channels through which Qi flows. There are 12 regular meridians and 8 extraordinary meridians. In the human body, the meridians are organized in an inter-locking mesh-like manner so that it connects ones left and right, inside and out, above and below. This can explain why if one’s head hurts needles are inserted to one’s foot, if the left side of the body is in pain, needles are placed on the right and internal problems are dealt with from the surface.

There is ongoing research about acupuncture.  In 2010, Nature Neuroscience published an article about the possible mechanism of acupuncture. It claims that the function of the adenosine at the A1 receptor may be associated with the analgesic effect of acupuncture. During their experiment, they found that adenosine levels following needle stimulation increased 24-folds compared to baseline levels. From an acupuncturists’ perspective, this research article may be the beginning of the long-awaited scientific explanation on the mechanism of the analgesic effects of acupuncture.

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