How Does Acupuncture Work?
The honest answer is that no one knows for certain how acupuncture works, but it is clear that it has a strong effect on the body. The Chinese explanation is that needling points affects the flow of energy (called qi) in the body. This is a rather unsatisfactory answer for those of us in the West, so I have included a more scientific explanation as well. There appear to be several mechanisms for acupuncture's effects:
1. Activation of the hypothalamus-pituitary system. These glands release endorphins into the central nervous system during acupuncture treatments, thereby reducing pain. Endorphins are thought to be 200 times more potent than morphine-type medications for relieving pain. Endorphins also strongly affect the hormonal systems, which at least partly explains why acupuncture is so effective in the treatment of infertility.
2. Changes in brain chemistry, and involuntary body functions. Studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones. Other observed physiological effects include increased circulation, decreased inflammation, relief from pain, relief of muscle spasms and increased T-cell count which stimulates the immune system.
3. The substances released as a result of acupuncture not only relax the whole body, they regulate serotonin in the brain which plays a role in human emotions. This is why depression is often treated with acupuncture.
From the WHO 2003 Review of Acupuncture: "Although different acupuncture points and manipulations may have an effect through different actions, the most important factor that influences the direction of action is the condition of the patient. Numerous examples reveal that the regulatory action of acupuncture is bi-directional. Acupuncture lowers the blood pressure in patients with hypertension and elevates it in patients with hypotension; increases gastric secretion in patients with hypoacidity, and decreases it in patients with hyperacidity; and normalizes intestinal motility under X-ray observation in patients with either spastic colitis or intestinal hypotonia (1). Therefore, acupuncture itself seldom makes the condition worse. In most instances, the main danger of its inappropriate application is neglecting the proper conventional treatment."
1. World Health Organization, 2003, Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of
Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials