How Does Acupunture Work?
The Material Scientific Explanation
If you have been told or have read that there is one factor to account for how acupuncture works, that explanation is probably not the whole picture. There have been many attempts to nail down The One Reason acupuncture works. In reality modern science is discovering that there is not one factor, but it is more likely many reactions going on at once involving different systems – including the central nervous system – that allow acupuncture to have such wide, strong and lasting effects.
From a biomedical perspective this is what we do know:
- From a western medicine point of view acupuncture causes many physiological changes in the body including vasodilation (increased blood flow), stimulation of hormones and neurotransmitters, and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (allowing the patient to achieve very deep relaxation). Acupuncture also invokes an analgesic effect by altering the body’s own natural pain-relieving opiate system. Our bodies produce a wide range of natural pain-relieving substances, anti-inflammatory chemicals, hormones, immune system enhancers — all without the need for outside drugs. In fact, some of our most effective drugs are synthetic copies of the chemicals our body makes naturally. Acupuncture helps to tap into and stimulate those existing resources to more quickly help your body to balance itself to resolve disease and discomfort.
- Modern research has demonstrated that most acupuncture points are located at neurovascular nodes where there is a high concentration of sensory fibers, fine blood vessels, fine lymphatic vessels, and mast cells. These nodes are distributed along longitudinal pathways of the body (in many instances closely aligned to the Meridian pathways understood in TCM) where the collateral blood vessels supply the capillaries and fine vessels. The skin in these areas is slightly thinner with a lower electrical resistance. They also contain more sensory nerves, and have more fine vessels with sequestered mast cells than non-nodes. Ancient Chinese physicians recognized that these nodes on the surface of the body could reflect disease conditions in the internal organs, and that these same nodes could be stimulated to relieve pain and treat internal organ problems.
- More recent research is revealing the vital communicative role played by the connective tissues (includes the fascia, ligaments, tendons, and even blood) in our bodies. Connective tissue is one of the most integral components of the human machine. Indeed, one could draw a line between any two points of the body via a path of connective tissue. This network is so extensive and ubiquitous that if we were to lose every organ, muscle, bone, nerve, and blood vessel in our bodies, we would still maintain the same shape: our “connective-tissue body.” Recent research is revealing that many systems of the body may be affected by mechanical changes to these connective tissues. The type of mechanical stimulus provided by acupuncture is believed to convert into chemical reactions and activity and may be responsible for a number of physiological processes in the body. It is estimated that there is an 80% correspondence between the site of acupuncture points and the location of intermuscular or intramuscular connective tissue.
- Broadly speaking, acupuncture has 3 primary effects:
- It relieves pain;
- It reduces inflammation;
- It restores homeostasis.
- Homeostasis refers to the body’s ability to regulate its environment and maintain internal balance. All diseases involve a disturbance of homeostasis, and nearly all diseases involve some degree of pain and inflammation. In fact, research over the last several decades suggests that many serious conditions like heart disease previously thought to have other causes are in fact primarily caused by chronic inflammation. If we understand that most diseases are characterized by pain, inflammation and disturbance of homeostasis, we begin to understand why acupuncture can be effective for so many conditions.
The Meridian System
The Eastern Medical Perspective
If you look at a rough sketch of the Chinese Meridian System juxtaposed to the images of what we recognize as our nervous and circulatory system in modern science you would recognize that the energy flows for the most part look quite similar.
The Chinese medical understanding of this meridian system is that Energy (or Qi, Ch’i, pronounced “Chee” and more closely meaning life’s force and substance) flows through these channels in the body and relate to all regions and organs of the body. Each of the TCM meridians has a direction of flow and they flow into one another and are connected energetically to our physical organs, glands, nervous and circulatory system, and brain. Thus from both an Eastern and Western medical perspective…
it makes sense that by stimulating one area, it can have a ripple effect through the body via this amazing network of nerves and vessels. Indeed Acupuncture has been shown clinically to have an impact on all of the bodies systems – Endocrine (Hormone), Nervous, Circulatory, Digestive, and Immune system.
Eastern medical science has evolved from a heightened understanding of the interrelatedness of every system, organ, tissue and physiological process occurring inside the body and the relationship of a human’s internal environment to his/her external environment as well. Indeed the acupuncture meridians of the body represent a functional, MACRO view of the body’s communication grids that can be used for the assessment and treatment of chronic illness. Thus an acupuncture meridian is a functional and practical representation of a countless number of physiological processes.
Rather than zeroing in on a breakdown in the specific area of ailment, Eastern medical practitioners focus on patterns of disharmony to understand the root of the breakdown leading to the dysfunction.
With acupuncture the meridian system serves as the channel through which the practitioner affects change in the overall integral functioning of the body’s living systems. Scientists who have struggled with the notion of energetic meridians have explained the “energy” flowing through the meridians from a pure physiological process where the stimulation of circulation of blood, nutrients, vital substances, and vital air (qi) through the vascular system is better properly understood.
Perhaps to understand Acupuncture and Ch’i from a Western perspective it also helps to go beyond biomedical science to include other scientific disciplines such as biophysics. For instance, science in the form of Quantum Physics has changed our perceptions of what we are made of. The concept of each of us existing simply as energy is not a new idea. Atoms which were once considered as the smallest particle that existed are in turn made up of subatomic particles, which have no solidity at all. Science tells us we are quite literally, packets or waves of information that vibrate. – We are nothing but energy and information. Acupuncture often is classified in the category of a new umbrella term “Energy Medicine” for therapies that heal energetically. Chinese and other Eastern medicine stems from a philosophical and scientific tradition understood thousands of years ago throughout Asia – that we are energy that communicates.
Whether one feels more comfortable with a more physiological theoretic model or the idea of energy flowing through meridians, it is important to understand that Acupuncture aims to keep these lines/channels of communication open and flowing, which is essential for healthy living. When the energy supplied to these bodily systems is disrupted, the body organs and systems are less able to defend against disease and injury.
The acupuncture points are where we access the meridian system to have an effect on the rest of the body. This is the meridian system we work with to effect change and to stimulate the body’s own healing mechanisms.