In this post we’re going to explore how acupuncture works from a western scientific perspective. As I’ve argued in the previous articles, there is no disagreement between the fundamental anatomical and physiological concepts of western and Chinese medicine. However, as methods of scientific inquiry have progressed, the mechanisms of acupuncture are beginning to be more clearly understood. Acupuncture effects every major system of the body, including the cardiac, gastrointestinal, circulatory, cerebral, genitourinary, endocrine and immune systems. It would take an entire book to describe all of the mechanisms involved, and in fact there is such a book for those who are interested in that level of detail. In this post my purpose is to summarize that research in a way that’s easy for lay people to understand, while providing links to more technical resources for medical professionals and others that might be interested. Broadly speaking, acupuncture has three primary effects: It relieves pain.
Several modes of action have been identified for acupuncture, which I’ll discuss below. The mechanisms can get quite complex. But ultimately acupuncture is a remarkably simple technique that depends entirely upon one thing: the stimulation of the peripheral nervous system. It’s important to point out that when nerves supplying acupoints are cut or blocked there is no acupuncture effect.
A large body of evidence indicates that acupoints, or “superficial nodes” as they are more accurately translated, have abundant supply of nerves. According to Chen Shaozong, “For 95% of all points in the range of 1.0 cm around a point, there exist nerve trunks or rather large nerve branches.” 1
The following is a list of mechanisms that have been identified so far:
Some purists object to acupuncture being described in biomedical terms. They claim that such descriptions are “reductionistic” and narrow-minded, and don’t take into account those aspects of acupuncture that we may not yet understand.
Others who are still committed to the “energy meridian” model are opposed to the biomedical descriptions because, in their eyes, such scientific inquiry “takes the magic” out of acupuncture.
While I agree that there we don’t yet fully understand how acupuncture works, I think it’s vital that practitioners of acupuncture are able to explain what we do know about it from a biomedical perspective to their patients and colleagues in the medical profession. As practitioners we have a moral obligation to provide each patient with the latest medical understanding available in terms they can understand and relate to. Doing this will improve patient outcomes and open the door for acupuncture to be integrated into the healthcare system, which is needed now more than ever.
I would also suggest that explaining the mechanisms of acupuncture in scientific terms should not in any way lessen our appreciation of its uniqueness. The fact that inserting fine needles into the skin can have such a broad range of powerful effects is just as remarkable when those effects are explained in terms of the nervous system as when they are explained in terms of “energy” and “meridians”. When you consider that the Chinese made these discoveries hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, acupuncture is even more impressive.
What’s more, as others have pointed out, acupuncture is inherently holistic even without the “energy meridian” theory because it restores internal homeostasis through the simple act of piercing the skin with a needle.
In the next article I’ll explain the latest theory on how acupuncture relieves pain in more detail. Stay tuned, and as always, I welcome your comments!