What does acupuncture do?

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What does acupuncture do?


At some stage of treatment, usually during the first one or two sessions, people tend to get interested. They start asking a bunch of questions, usually something along the lines of “What does acupuncture do?”, or “How does acupuncture work?”. What they are asking about is what we call acupuncture mechanisms.

There are two ways of looking at how acupuncture works: the traditional theories, and the western neurobiological mechanisms.

Traditional theories are still what we use when making a diagnosis and a treatment plan. These have been developed over many years, and theories have constantly been changing and added to or even intermingled. They all rely on the concept of qi, or energy, flowing through the body in certain ways. Added to that are theoretical frameworks such as yin-yang (dual opposites that interact constantly; most people have heard the term before), wu xing (the five phases or five elements), and zang fu (grouping the organs of the body according to the five phases).

What it boils down to is that there are different kinds of qi that all have different functions and interactions. When they do their jobs, all is good. When they get out of whack, you get sick or feel pain.

From a Western neurobiological view, there is no such thing as qi. Therefore, how do we explain what does acupuncture do? It’s an ongoing area of research and we’re finding that there’s no one simple answer, but here’s a few things:

First up, when you stick a needle in your skin, your body responds in certain ways. It invokes an injury response that increases local blood flow and releases endorphins (that’s a neurotransmitter that affects how you feel pain). This may be the mechanism for local pain in musculoskeletal injuries, and it’s been well researched. It also may be one of the mechanisms behind cosmetic acupuncture – you can read more about that here:

Cosmetic Acupuncture

The somato-autonomic reflex: This is a funky way of saying that the acupuncture stimulates the nervous system. This may be responsible for acupuncture affecting things like gastric motility (how fast food moves through your body), cardio-vascular function (like high blood pressure), or nausea.

Affecting the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain: like before, when we talked about endorphin (how you feel pain), various brain structure may be affected by other neurotransmitters: dopamine (this one has to do with pleasure and reward feelings), substance P and metenkephalin (these ones are to do with pain as well).

Neuroendocrine effect: Increasing or decreasing the levels of hormones like luteinising hormone (that’s got to do with the female menstrual cycle).

So, what does acupuncture do? A whole bunch of stuff! If you like reading about this sort of thing in detail, I’d recommend something like this:

CHENG, K. J. 2014. Neurobiological mechanisms of acupuncture for some common illnesses: a clinician’s perspective. J Acupunct Meridian Stud, 7, 105-14.

What does acupuncture do?

What does acupuncture do?

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