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How Does Acupuncture Work?

One of the most consistent questions that I get asked is “How does acupuncture work?” So many women come to acupuncture to resolve a specific ailment, but the details about how acupuncture actually works often remains a bit of a mystery. I decided to write this post to help answer the questions women have when they arrive in my office and take some of the mystery out of what I do to help women improve their wellbeing, reduce stress and achieve greater vitality. 

How Does Acupuncture Work To Heal?

The questions are fairly straightforward:

First, let’s take a look at what acupuncture is and the science behind it. Keep in mind, while I’ve tried to keep the descriptions concise and not overly complicate things, I’ve linked all the sources so you can dive deeper into the research whenever you like.  

How Does Acupuncture Work?

To understand how acupuncture works, let’s first explain the word. The root word, “Acu”, is a Latin word that means, “sharpen”. Puncture, of course, means to penetrate the surface. Put the two together, and you get the word, “Acupuncture”.

Acupuncture is a form of Chinese Medicine that dates back more than 5,000 years ago, with the earliest written record of acupuncture dating back to approximately 200 BC.  

Acupuncture is a collection of procedures that uses needling in order to stimulate certain points on the body. Acupuncture treats patterns in the body as a whole, to bring wellness and to restore the patient’s entire system.  Acupuncture operates on the premise that all discomforts and illnesses in the human body result from imbalances in the body’s energy. These imbalances can be either from blockages in energy or from a lack of energy, or as it is often referred to as, stagnation or deficiency.  

An acupuncturist will insert sterile, hair thin needles into approximately ten to fifteen acupoints per session. These points are like subway stops along a long and complicated subway system.  Each location has a special and circumscribed function and also work synergistically with the other points.

Most patients find an acupuncture session to be relaxing and many people actually fall asleep. If you want to know what to expect during a typical session, read this article: What to Expect During Your First Acupuncture Visit.

Acupuncture Science

While acupuncture is sometimes thought to be more of a philosophical approach, there is plenty of science to back up the method. In scientific terms, the meridian points used in the practice of acupuncture are places where connective tissue, nerve and muscles are accessible for stimulation through the use of acupuncture needles.

Scientists and doctors use a term commonly known as neuroplasticity, which is the notion that over time neurological activity can be redirected, relearned, or re-programmed to promote healing. Another aspect of acupuncture science is neuropsychoimmunology, which is something acupuncturists have understood for years but scientists are recently uncovering.  Awareness that the brain and nervous system play a larger role than they thought in protecting a person from disease, even cancers.

With these scientific ideas in place, acupuncture prompts re-learning responses within the body that ultimately result in healing.

Clinical studies, using fMRI as visual proof, have discovered that there is a calming effect of the amygdala, which is our brain’s seat of anxiety and stress. Well-respected traditional medical facilities, such as the Mayo Clinic, the Cochrane Review, and the Center for Integrative Medicine of University of California at Irvine, have conducted clinical trials and come to the conclusions that acupuncture is successful when used in correlation with western medicine.  Even the United States Military accepts acupuncture as a form of alternative care.

The use of acupuncture has been an effective battlefield treatment for the U.S. military is well documented. For years, The United States Air Force has been teaching what is referred to as “Battlefield Acupuncture” which is used to treat sick and wounded servicemen and women. The result has not only been physically effective but also cost effective, because it has produced a reduction in the amount of painkillers needed to be dispensed after surgical procedures.

There are several major medical studies that support using Acupuncture for specific ailments and for relieving pain. Clinical trials have proven acupuncture to be helpful in:

  • Headaches and Migraines
  • Fertility and Pregnancy Issues, including morning sickness
  • Post-surgery discomfort
  • Fibromyalgia pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Back Pain
  • Morning Sickness
  • There are ongoing clinical tests with hope for fighting cancer, and currently acupuncture is offered in some prominent hospitals to be used alongside patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Studies conducted from England, Wales, and Denmark showed a drop in dementia rates when using acupuncture. Other scientific, clinical studies have shown a marked difference in the level of pain relief with acupuncture, especially on back, neck, chronic headache, shoulder, and osteoarthritis pain. The patients had less pain, with scores on a generally used scale of 0.42 to 0.55 standard deviations from no acupuncture.

The findings in a report printed in the Wall Street Journal provide strong scientific support for an age-old therapy used by an estimated three million Americans each year. Financed by the National Institutes of Health and carried out over about half a decade, the new research was a detailed analysis of earlier research that involved data on nearly 18,000 patients.

Other studies have concluded that people with depression may benefit as much from acupuncture as they do from counseling. A Reuters article, backed up with one that appeared in The Huffington Post, reported that a scientific study found that “one in three patients were no longer depressed after three months of acupuncture or counseling, compared to one in five who received neither treatment”.

What Do Acupuncture Needles Do?

The most common form of acupuncture uses a technique of penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles. The needles are then manipulated by the trained acupuncturist or by the use of electrical stimulation. By using the needles for stimulation, it increases blood flow while simultaneously triggering the release of endorphins which are the human body’s natural painkillers.

While some fear hypodermic needles which are used to draw blood or inject substances, the needles used in acupuncture are very different. Instead, these sterile, hair-thin needles are used to trigger, or stimulate, pressure points, sometimes called acu-points, throughout the body.

Why does acupuncture work, and what happens during the first visit to a trained and licensed acupuncturist?

Instead of treating only the symptoms, acupuncture gets to the root of the problem by opening up pathways within the body to allow healing to take place. Acupuncture is successful because it works with the body to provide an environment for the human system to work as it was designed to work and to promote well-being and health to the entire body as a whole.

Many patients request that acupuncture be used in combination with traditional treatments to ease discomfort, pain and nausea, and to increase healing time during other traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy. More and more hospitals have acupuncture and alternative therapy departments designed to work alongside hospital staff to provide a more holistic approach.

The first session is similar to what you may experience the first time you see a primary care physician. There is a basic question and answer intake where the acupuncturist begins to gather the information needed to better understand your symptoms and current state of well-being.

Now that you know the acupuncture science, and understand the answers to the questions of How does acupuncture work?” “Why does acupuncture work?” and “What do acupuncture needles do?” it’s time to discover how acupuncture will benefit you.


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