Most people know that acupuncture involves needles and that it can be effective for physiological conditions – but what exactly is it? How does it work? Where did it come from? Are there any risks to doing it? And arguably most importantly, can you really gain physical, emotional, and even mental health benefits?
To understand the basics, it's important to look at this holistic healing treatment from two different perspectives – Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as well as western biomedical functions, respectively.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture
Traditional acupuncture works on the premises of the 'meridian theory' – that qi (pronounced ch-ee), or energy, travels in pathways, or channels, through the body.
Sometimes, due to lifestyle and environmental reasons, this flow of qi can be disrupted or blocked which can result in some symptoms of pain or illness. In certain instances, traditional acupuncture can be an effective therapy to help restore balance and promote a more physical and emotional harmony in the body.
Imagine a traffic jam during rush hour: cars are blocking the road and no one can get anywhere. You start to feel tense around the neck and shoulders, you’re getting tired and annoyed, and oh no, now you need the bathroom as well.
Blocked energy in your body is considered just as bad in Chinese Medicine. Illness or pain can result when this flow of qi is disrupted or blocked. Acupuncture, or even acupressure – a form of alternative therapy in which manual pressure is used to stimulate specific points on the body along what are considered to be lines of energy – works on rebalancing the body’s qi naturally without medication.
Now, if the traffic jam was suddenly removed: it would be a great feeling, right? Along the channels are acupuncture points that are like junctions on a motorway, allowing access to the meridians. The acupuncture points are gateways to influence, redirect, and increase or decrease the body’s flow of qi, blood, and vital substances to address many of the body’s imbalances.
At its simplest, acupuncture is the practice of inserting sterile hairfine needles to an acupuncture point – however, that is like sticking your hand out to hail a taxi when there are none around. However if you catch a cab driver’s attention and they take you on your journey, then you have achieved success. In the same way, acupuncturists believe that stimulating the qi in the channels somehow signals to the body’s system what it needs to do to resolve the condition.
How acupuncture works from the perspective of Western medicine
In spite of some excellent medical research designed to answer how acupuncture works, there are no simple or 'direct' answers available.
This is largely due to the fact that acupuncture has a variety of therapeutic effects on the body and so the action depends on the type of pathology. Pain, and therefore pain relief, is the area in which most of the research has been done – hence, those theories about the mechanisms of acupuncture relate to issues of pain.
The most popular modern scientific explanation is that needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release morphine-like substances to help deal with pain. Nerve fibres travel from the acupuncture points to the spinal cord, and from there, they continue on to the brain stem and hypothalamuspituitary gland. Stimulation of these areas in the brain and spinal cord cause the release of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, that cause inhibition of nerve pain fibres.
Even animal studies have shown that acupuncture can alter the release of various hormones and neurotransmitters. These affect the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes that regulate blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature.
What you should know before seeing an acupuncturist
When acupuncture is performed by a trained professional, it can be a very effective form of pain relief. Many people have reported to seeing huge positive changes when using acupuncture to help them through issues like fertility, digestive conditions, sleep dysfunction, to stress relief. In fact, many people have it regularly as a form of maintenance and prevention.
If you are thinking about trying acupuncture, make sure you always see a licensed acupuncturist.