In my office, “how does acupuncture work” is a very common question. Often new patients have no idea what to expect, and there is a bit of a magical aura around acupuncture. Especially when I put a needle in the ankle, and immediately the opposite wrist feels better. But it isn’t magic, it’s medicine, and there are 5 prevailing theories that the modern scientific community has come up with to explain acupuncture:
Augmentation of Immunity Theory
Acupuncture increases levels of triglycerides, specific hormones, prostaglandins, white blood counts, gamma globulins, opsonins, and overall anti-body levels, which improves immune function.
Acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters found in the brain with morphine-like properties.
Acupuncture stimulates specific neurotransmitters (like serotonin or noradrenaline) . These neurotransmitters regulate the nervous system, allowing us to properly react to external and internal stimuli. This is the regulation of our reactions to things, like becoming overly stressed, or wanting to go to sleep all the time.
Acupuncture constricts or dilates blood vessels by causing the release of substances that stimulate the vascular system.
Gate Control Theory
This theory suggests that the small nerve fibers that transmit pain signals to the brain can be overwhelmed when too many impulses are generated. This effectively closes the “gate” and pain impulses do not get transmitted to the brain. It is believed that acupuncture stimulates and overwhelms these gates, and pain impulses are blocked.
These theories are what the scientific community has come up with through the use of controlled research studies, all in the last 20-25 years or so. But there is also a very extensive body of work, perhaps the last 5000 years, that uses very different language to explain how acupuncture works.
Eastern Energetic Model to answer “How Does Acupuncture Work?”
East Asian medical theory is based on nature. When ancient doctors (or shamans) and philosophers were trying to explain the nature of human existence, they took the stance that our inner environment mirrors our outer environment. So physiology, health and disease works just as nature does. All of our internal organs and tissues receive an element according to it’s nature. Now just as science has come up with multiple theories, there are also many theories in the Asian medicine sphere. I’m going to show you one of the theories, the Five Element Theory, that is foundational to classical Chinese medicine.
Five Element Theory
Proper physiology depends on the interactions of the organs and tissues. This chart shows the element assigned to each organ, and the relationships between the different organ systems:
The arrows that create a circle show the generating cycle. Fire generates Earth, Earth generates Metal, etc. And the arrows in the center that create a star show the control cycle. Water controls Fire, Fire controls Metal, etc.
If there was a Fire pathology (perhaps a heart pathology), this chart shows three ways to treat it. Treat the heart directly, subdue water is that over-controlling Fire, or intensify Wood, which isn’t generating enough Fire.
How do we do this? Through the manipulation of qi that runs through the acupuncture channels, using acupuncture, or working on the qi, blood and body fluids through Chinese herbs.
More theories of how Chinese medicine works are the Yin Yang Theory, Zang Fu Theory and 6 Confirmations Theory. A great book to go into more detail is called Between Heaven and Earth, a Guide to Chinese Medicine.