How does Acupuncture work?
Traditional Chinese Medicine Explanation
Acupuncture works with the body’s qi (vital energy) which flows in a series of meridians (energy channels) throughout the body’s many systems (muscles, sinews, organs, etc). Imagine the energy channels as rivers. If a beaver builds a dam on a river, upstream, the water pools and downstream it trickles. The same thing can happen in your body's meridians in response to an injury or other trauma (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual).
By inserting very small needles in areas along the meridians at specific points, the practitioner of acupuncture can influence the flow of qi throughout the meridians. Acupuncture triggers the body to move toward balance and to be in a state of health by smoothing the flow of qi throughout the body so the organ systems can work to their fullest potential.
Scientific Research Explanation
The insertion of acupuncture needles along the body’s meridians seems to produce clinical effects that have been shown to map to some specific biological effects in the body. One biological correlate that has been suggested by Helene Langevin in her research (Langevin, 2006) is a body-wide signaling network via the connective tissue.
Other research has suggested that the concentration of nitric oxide at acupuncture points and meridians is higher in areas that also show an increase in electrical conductance in the skin. Since nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator, this suggests that stimulation of those areas might increase blood flow and subsequently aid in healing (Ma, 2003).
There has been some research which suggests there may be differences in the electrical properties of acupoints and meridians when compared with surrounding tissue (Ahn, et al., 2008). Lastly, research using functional MRI shows correlation between stimulation of acupoints traditionally known to affect vision and changes in the visual cortices similar to the changes that occur with visual stimulation (Cho, et al., 1998).
All of these research studies suggest biological correlates that may help to explain the mechanism of action when acupuncture is administered. As with any scientific research, we can not definitively say that any or all of these mechanisms are the absolute cause of acupuncture’s efficacy. But they DO indicate that there are biological responses to acupuncture. All of these correlates suggest directions for future research.
Ahn A.C., Colbert A.P., Anderson B.J., Martinsen O.G., Hammerschlag R., et al. (2008) Electrical properties of acupuncture points and meridians: a systematic review. Bioelectromagnetics,29(4):245-56.
Cho, Z-H. et al. (1998). New findings of the correlation between acupoints and corresponding brain cortices using functional MRI. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 95: 2670-2673.
Ma, SX. (2003) Enhanced nitric oxide concentrations and expression of nitric oxide synthase in acupuncture points/meridians. J Altern Complement Med.(9):207-215.
Langevin, H. (2006) Connective tissue: a body-wide signaling network? Med Hypoth 66(6), 1074-1077.