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How Does Acupuncture Work?

Updated: May 4, 2023

how does acupuncture work

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is a traditional medicine that was developed in China thousands of years ago. It has become more popular in the West over the past few decades. The most common question I'm asked by patients is, "How does acupuncture work?" I usually respond with, "Do you want the biomedical or traditional explanation? Most people want both explanations so I will use this post to provide some information on this ancient medicine.

Science based explanation

From a biomedical viewpoint, acupuncture uses disposable, hair thin needles that are inserted through the skin to activate specific acupuncture points on the body. The activation of these points send signals to the spinal cord and brain to release endogenous opiates and to down modulate the sympathetic nervous system for all my neuroscience nerds out there. And for all of my non science lovelies, this basically means acupuncture will signal the body to release its natural pain relieving neurotransmitters and also will release our natural feel good chemicals called endorphins. Finally, it signals the nervous system to relax. When your body is relaxed that is when healing can take place.

Research has shown using magnetic imaging that acupuncture points are located in areas of the body where there are an increased number of nerves, blood vessels, lymph vessels and mast cells that form a very complex structure. Mast cells are a type of immune cell that are found in connective tissue throughout the body. They contribute to homeostasis of the immune system and improve circulation. Check out the image below of the 360 acupuncture points that are located all along the body. And yes, I had to memorize the location of all of them in acupuncture school!

how does acupuncture work

Chinese medicine theory

When viewed from the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) paradigm, acupuncture brings the body back to homeostasis. Chinese medicine theory is based on the principles of yin and yang. For optimal health, there needs to be a balanced amount of yang (day time energy) and yin (evening energy). Yang includes "qi" the life force energy that allows your body to function. Yin includes the slow moving, viscous substances of the body like blood and fluids. When there is too much or too little of these substances in an area of the body, that is when disease occurs.

Acupuncture channels run up and down the whole body as you can see from the picture above. Each dot corresponds to an acupuncture point along the channel and this point has a specific function. The substances of the body (qi, blood, fluids) move through these channels or meridians freely when the body is healthy and balanced. When there is a disruption in the movement of the substances, they will either get stuck in one area or there will not be enough in another area leading to disease.

I like to compare the acupuncture channels to a multi lane highway. The cars drive smoothly and at a normal speed when there is no traffic. However, if there is an accident, the cars will slow down and cause a traffic jam. If the cars involved in the accident are not moved out of the way, then the traffic jam will get worse and worse. Let's use a real life example, and say that you hurt your back. The muscles will spasm and tighten up to protect the surrounding structures. This causes a traffic jam of qi, blood, and fluids. The blockage of substances in this specific area leads to a sensation of pain. Acupuncture needles are used at specific points in the local and distal areas of the body to restore the free flow of qi, blood and fluids.

Some benefits of acupuncture include:

  • Pain relief

  • Improve circulation

  • Relax your nervous system

  • Boost immune system

  • Mood enhancer

  • Better sleep

Typical treatment

An acupuncture treatment usually lasts 30 minutes after the needles have been inserted. Some additional modalities that may be performed during the treatment include: cupping, gua sha, and moxibustion. There will be more on these modalities in a later post. The treatment plan will depend on what you are coming in for, how long you have had the problem, and how severe it is. I generally recommend once or twice a week for 6-8 treatments in the beginning to see if it is working for you. This medicine is cumulative which means that the more treatments you have in the beginning the longer lasting the effects.

Side effects

Acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment that can be used for a variety of health conditions. Generally, there are no major side effects, but some common ones that can occur:

  • Feeling lightheaded after treatment. Acupuncture can be moving so it's helpful to eat something 1-2 hours before your treatment and not go on an empty stomach. This sensation will typically go away after a couple of hours.

  • Bruising at the site of needle insertion. This is due to the needle being too close to the blood vessel and causing bleeding. This will go away in the time it normally takes for your bruises to heal.

  • Soreness at the site of needle insertion. This is due to your body activating your own healing response to the areas where the needles were inserted. This generally goes away in 1-2 days.

Stay tuned for my next blog post on the many conditions that acupuncture can be used to treat I hope you found this helpful and if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out. Be well!


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