One of the most common questions I get from new patients is “how does acupuncture work?” It seems that after 13 years of inserting tiny needles into specific locations on various people’s bodies that I should be able to easily answer this seemingly simple question. But alas, the answer continues to elude me.
We have lots of theories about why acupuncture works, but pretty much no understanding of exactly how it happens. Functional MRI studies have been able to demonstrate changes in which parts of the brain fire when needles are inserted. Changes in blood blow have been measured. Anyone who has experienced it has noticed the change in brain waves and shift in neurotransmitter levels leading to the profound relaxation only those needles can bring. But how insertion of needles at specific points causes all these changes is still not understood.
About 80% of acupuncture points are located where connective tissue planes intersect, so one hypothesis is that the needles send signals across multiple planes of connective tissue to have far-reaching affects on the body. Some researchers are convinced that the communication is through the nerves. Others swear that it is through chemical signals sent via the circulatory system. Still others are certain that qi is waves of light in an invisible spectrum, and the needles cause waves in the light which then reverberate through the body. In some instances, the needles can trigger a stretch reflex which forces the relaxation of a muscle in spasm. At times, the histamine response to the insult of a sharp object in the skin triggers an immune system response which has systemic effects.
From an Asian Medicine perspective, acupuncture is all about movement of qi. The character for qi, directly translated, means “vital air”. It has been called energy, life force, and prana, among other things, and it loosely refers to all of the physiological processes of the body. You are born with a certain amount of “prenatal qi” which is somewhat akin to your genetic programming. You use qi every day for breathing, eating, digesting, playing, working, thinking, and everything else that you do, so over a lifetime you use up all of your prenatal qi. We bring additional qi into our bodies through the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the herbs and medicines we take. Qi is stored in some organs, moved by others, and is required for virtually everything our bodies do. It moves in specific ways through pathways called meridians and collaterals. When qi is abundant and flows smoothly, there is health. When the qi is depleted or is unable to move, there is dis-ease.
What are meridians and collaterals? Again, there are many hypotheses about what these invisible pathways are, and much of the allopathic world pooh-poohs them as a load of malarkey since they are unable to be seen or measured by current scientific instruments. Despite the disbelief of the modern west, if you have ever experienced acupuncture you have probably at one time or another been acutely aware of a meridian or two!
Imagine your body is a big city. There are main freeways which go to general areas within the city, and there are surface streets which go to every house in the city. When all the drivers are behaving and the flow of traffic is smooth, people get easily where they need to go. When any freeway or surface street is blocked, problems occur.
In this analogy, the freeways are your main meridians and the collaterals are the surface streets bringing qi to every cell in your body. When a meridian or collateral is blocked, there is a relative excess of qi on one side of the block and a relative deficiency on the other side. Meridians and collaterals can become blocked because there is too little qi in the system to move what is there, because there is a trauma which “collapses” them, because there is an actually physical blockage, because there is an external influence such as a virus or bacteria impeding flow, because of emotional imbalances, and for many other reasons. The blockages and subsequent imbalance of qi leads to pretty much all disease.
Acupuncture is the physical treatment which clears the blockages and restores flow. The needles can act like a tow truck and remove the blockages. They can also provide a detour so qi can flow around a blocked area and get where it needs to go. In the case where there is too little qi to move what is there, herbs and diet changes are used to increase the amount of qi in the system and thus allow movement. An analogy here would be a stream in the dry season. There may been plenty of water in isolated pools and a trickle between them, yet the water in the pools becomes stagnant because there is not enough flowing water to move what is there. When it rains, the stream fills up and the stagnant water is able to flow between pools again, perhaps even eliminating pools entirely in favor of a flowing stream.
When you catch a “bug”, a pathogen – virus, bacteria, parasite, or fungus in the allopathic world; cold, heat, wind, dampness, dryness in the Asian medicine world – overwhelms the body’s ability to circulate qi. There is sometimes a battle between the body and the pathogenic influence which can deplete the qi as well as impair movement. A mild fever is one indication of this type of battle. Through acupuncture, herbs, and changes in diet the body can become strong enough once again to kick the bug to the curb, and you gradually get well.
Because acupuncture moves qi, it can be helpful for any condition where movement of qi is impaired. Whether you experience pain from a sprained ankle, lingering swelling and aching after surgery, stuffy nose from allergies, back pain from sitting in the same position all day, difficulty sleeping because you can’t get your brain to turn off at night, or even inability to become pregnant, acupuncture may be able to help. Remember, it’s all about the qi!