How does acupuncture work?

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Acupuncture works by fooling your body into thinking that something bad has happened. Your body then unleashes a healing response that works on your original problem. It’s like lighting a match near a smoke detector to call out the whole Fire Department.

Let’s say for example that you have lower back pain. We insert some needles into your back. The needles stimulate nerve endings in the muscles that would normally only be touched if you had suffered a significant puncture wound. Your brain knows exactly where those nerve endings are located. They are in the muscle, not the skin. Your brain knows that nothing should be touching those nerve endings. Life didn’t evolve in a world with hair thin, sterile, stainless steel needles that could touch a nerve without causing damage to the overlying tissue. Your brain is wired to think you were bit in the back by a tiger.

In response to that stimulation, your brain releases endorphin and enkalphins (natural pain relievers 1,000 times stronger than morphine) that reduce pain. Blood flow and nutrients are also redirected to the low back.

A local effect of the needles is that they cause the release of Substance P, a signaling molecule that indicates trauma. Your immune system responds by directing white cells to the area to repair injured tissue and fight infection. Substance P is also a chemo-attractant, meaning that it attracts circulating anti inflammatory hormones like cortisol.

Lastly, Substance P causes the muscles in the area of the needle insertion to go completely limp. Imagine if the foreign object was a splinter. Substance P’s effect as a muscle relaxant would cause the splinter to fall out. This again is a natural defense to being penetrated by a foreign object.

So in summary, acupuncture reduces pain, inflammation and spasm while also speeding the repair process.

How you might ask, does acupuncture help such diverse non-conditions as irregular menstruation, sinus or urinary tract infections, asthma, colitis, etc? The answer lies in how the nervous system is organized. There are locations all over the body (acupoints) whose nerve signals overlap with nerve signals from internal organs and other bodily systems. Stimulating these points confuses the body to think that there is a problem in the related organ or tissue. Your brain then releases a cascade of neurotransmitters which in turn triggers the release of hormones and cytokines (immune cell signaling chemicals) that can affect every system in your body. Again, acupuncture is tricking your body to think that there is an even greater problem than what actually exists and this in turn triggers an even stronger healing response. There is no medicine on the needle, no magical metaphysics, just the healing response triggered by provoking your nervous system.

Lan Su pagoda

A New Theory of Acupuncture

Why Are Acupuncture Points Located Where They Are? Patients often ask, “Why are you needling my hand when the problem is in my sinuses, or needling my foot to treat tooth pain? Why are the points always somewhere other than where my problem is?” The quick answer is that these are the most effective points for that condition. A slightly ...