How Does Acupuncture Work?


For thousands of years, millions of people throughout the world have benefitted from acupuncture. When it comes to acupuncture in the United States, though, it’s history only goes back a few decades, to 1971 to be precise. While in China during the Nixon/Mao meetings, a journalist from The New York Times became ill and experienced acupuncture treatment with great success. He wrote an article (here) when he returned and this became the first introduction of acupuncture to the general public.

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When introduced to new and seemingly unconventional things, we have a tendency to react with skepticism. This is certainly understandable when it comes to acupuncture. The Chinese culture is quite different than ours―language, customs, politics, food, etc. This was even more evident back in the 1970’s as China had closed it’s borders after the Cultural revolution in the 1940’s.

Let’s add the fact that acupuncture was a procedure involving needles stuck in different parts of the body to cure a variety of ailments without medication. Seems ridiculous. I was very skeptical myself regarding acupuncture before I heard a story told by one of my professors from chiropractic school. In my first post I explained how a cardiologist from St. Louis convinced me otherwise, describing how he witnessed an open thoracic (chest) surgery using acupuncture anesthesia. More on that later.

When I think of how acupuncture has become more mainstream after almost 50 years after that initial article was published, I am reminded of a great quote:

“All great truths go through three stages. At first they are ridiculed, then violently attacked, and finally accepted as self evident.”

We have begun to enter the final stage (self-evidence) as acupuncture principles are now taught in some of the most prestigious medical schools in the United States including Harvard and Stanford. There are also numerous hospitals including the esteemed Mayo Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital that now offer acupuncture services to their patients.

According to the Word Health Organization (WHO), the specialized agency within the United Nations concerned with international health, acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for a wide variety of conditions from pain to high blood pressure. So now that we have established the fact that is does work, how does it work?

The question I most commonly hear is, “What is on the needles?” Because western medicine focuses so much on medication, it is assumed there must be something on them that provides relief. The needles are simply sanitized solid stainless steel. The effects are due to the stimulation of the acupuncture point, not the needle itself. This is why pressure, electrical stimulation, or laser will create similar physiological changes.

Think of acupuncture points as keys on a piano. When stimulated, each point creates a specific “tone” in the brain. Over thousands of years, brilliant healers have discovered how various combinations of points result in very specific physiological responses just like Mozart and Beethoven discovered how specific combinations of notes on a piano created beautiful symphonies.

In the body, the nervous system is the master controller and what controls the nervous system is the brain. When functioning optimally, the body and brain communicate with clarity and precision. However, injury, infection, toxins, or stress can cause interference in this communication. As a result, the brain cannot properly direct the body’s normal physiological functions necessary to maintain or regain health.

The nervous system works through electrical impulses. Stimulation of the nervous system causes electrical impulses to move from the body to the brain. The brain interprets the information and then sends signals back to the body organs instructing them on what needs to be done. Just like the impulses that transmit your voice over your mobile phone require a smooth connection, so it is with your nervous system. If there is “static” in your body (that is, interference due to physical, chemical, or emotional stressors), the brain cannot properly interpret the information it receives from the body. Without proper feedback, the brain loses it’s ability to properly regulate the body resulting in diminished health. If this interference occurs long enough or is severe enough, dysfunction turns into disease.

When the nervous system becomes corrupted, it acts similar to a computer infected by a virus. It doesn’t matter if you turn the computer on or off, delete and reinstall the software―until the virus is eliminated and communication returns to normal, the computer will continue to malfunction. Stimulating acupuncture points directly affects the brain and restores normal communication with the body. It acts like anti-virus software by eliminating interference and reestablishing normal communication.

Through the use of advanced medical technology such as electromyography (EMG), nerve conduction velocity (NCV), and functional MRI (fMRI), acupuncture has transitioned from a questionable oddity to a scientifically proven treatment for a wide variety of conditions. My next blog will take a look at some of the research that has brought acupuncture into the medical mainstream.

Remember that story I discussed earlier about my professor witnessing open heart surgery with acupuncture? The BBC Documentary below literally begins with such a surgery (really, within the first 10 seconds). It is absolutely amazing to see!



1 thought on “How Does Acupuncture Work?

  1. Pingback: Acid Reflux Has Found It’s Match With Acupuncture | Acupuncture Pointers

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