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But, how does acupuncture work?

Despite being nearly 5000 years old, and having been extensively researched across the world, there are still no conclusive answers about exactly how acupuncture works.

However, there are a number of widely accepted scientific theories which can begin to shed some light on the mechanisms behind its functionality.

The traditional, eastern theory behind how acupuncture works is that our state of health is dependent on something called “Qi”.

Qi is a Chinese word that is somewhat difficult to translate into English, but it can be roughly equated to energy or life force.

This Qi flows around the body in channels called meridians. Think of the meridians as highways or a free flowing river. Then, imagine cars running along smoothly or water running its natural course.

When the highways are clear and traffic is flowing freely or the water is not dammed up, we all get to where we need to be quickly and everyone is happy. But if there is an accident up ahead and the roads get blocked, it has a blocking effect. Traffic gets backed up and everyone starts to stress. You could say the situation gets inflamed…

And in the body, that means disease.

Acupuncture acts like the emergency services. It comes in, removes the blockage, restores the flow and gets everything moving again.

But this is all very far removed from what we now understand, in the western world, about how the body works. Or is it?

Take pain, as an example. This is one of the most common conditions treated by acupuncture in the world today.

We experience pain as a reaction to a stimulus that sends a signal, through the nerves to the brain. There it is processed as a negative sensation. In response we release endorphins. These are the body’s “feel-good” chemicals. They have a morphine-like action on the body, killing pain and producing a natural high.

However, in severe or chronic pain, the body can’t produce enough of these natural painkillers to keep up.

Acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the brain to release more endorphins. It is these that give acupuncture its relaxing, stress-busting effects in addition to relieving pain.

Acupuncture has also been shown to reduce inflammation and increase circulation in the target area, reducing stiffness and improving mobility.

Gate Control Theory is a leading hypothesis used to explain the mechanisms behind acupuncture. This theory is based on the idea that before reaching the brain, a pain signal has to pass through “nerve gates” in the spinal cord.

These gates can be opened or closed in response to a number of factors including emotional state, physical activity, distractions or counter-stimulation. This explains why when you get hurt, rubbing or holding the injury often helps.

Acupuncture works in the same way. When an acupuncture point is stimulated, it creates a diversion for the brain and nervous system. This causes the nerve gates to close and blocks the pain signal from getting through.

Acupuncture points are located in areas with a high concentration of blood vessels and nerve endings. Because acupuncture involves insertion with a fine needle, it registers as a micro-injury. This causes a cascade of different neurotransmitters to be released.

These chemicals stimulate the nervous system and have a wide range of effects throughout the entire body. Through this interaction with the nervous system that acupuncture is able to affect not only the area immediately around the points, but also those further away.

By stimulating multiple points together, different nerve pathways are triggered, giving acupuncture its far-reaching benefits. As well as relieving pain, acupuncture has an effect on circulation, digestion, hormonal balance, breathing, wound healing and blood chemistry.

So in the same way that highways connect one city to another, with traffic flowing in between, the nervous system allows the muscles and organs to communicate with the brain. It is through this complex physical and chemical communications system that acupuncture is able to influence our health and treat a wide range of diseases.

 

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