Does acupuncture work? Or is it a bunch of hippie crap? And if so, how does it work?
It’s funny, I’ve gotten this question from many people, and what’s interesting is that when I meet physicians, they often are very intrigued by it, especially acupuncture’s newest research on relieving back pain, as a viable alternative to the opioid epidemic.
However, people tend to be in two camps when it comes to acupuncture.
There are people who have experienced it, have seen it work or have read research on it. And they’re wondering how it works. And there are people who aren’t even clear if it works, they have no exposure to it and they think it’s a bunch of hogwash.
So does acupuncture work and if so, how does it work?
Does Acupuncture Work? 3 Ways Science Tries to Explain The Effects
In one particular study, researchers looked at 79 previous studies, and then wanted to analyze possible mechanisms of action for acupuncture. And here’s what they found. What was interesting was that 33% of these studies often found results, but no “physiological explanation” for how they worked.
In particular, the studies mentioned results for specific conditions like:
- Auditory hallucinosis
- Breach presentation
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Chronic sinusitis
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Mental fatigue
- Overactive Bladder Syndrome
- Stroke rehabilitation.
The NCCAM, a counsel for alternative medicine, proposed several possible theories for how acupuncture works. Again, this is a biomedical explanation, since Chinese medicine obviously knows how Chinese medicine works – according to Chinese medical theory.
“It is proposed that acupuncture produces its effects through regulating the nervous system, thus aiding the activity of pain killing biochemicals such as endorphins, and immune system cells at specific sites in the body.”
#1 Acupuncture Works by Releasing Neurochemicals
“In addition, studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neuro transmitters and neuro hormones, and thus affecting the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation, and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes that regulate a person’s blood pressure, blood flow and body temperature.”
One of the dominant theories right now is that acupuncture stimulates the release of neuro chemicals.
In 56% of these articles cited, the “results” of the acupuncture were attributed to neuro-chemical release. In this case, “neurochemical” typically means opioids, endorphins, or seratonin.
This mechanism of action was cited in studies for pain relief, for nausea and vomiting, for obesity, for Parkinson’s, for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, for immune function, for lower esophageal sphincter relaxations (usually related to acid reflux), blood pressure, post menopausal vasomotor syndrome, colitis, and sleep quality.
#2 – Acupuncture Works by Affecting the Autonomic Nervous System
Another biomedical theory is that acupuncture actually affects the autonomic nervous system.
Several of these studies related to autonomic regulation involved changing of the heart rate, heart rate variability, blood pressure or respiration (which are under autonomic control in the body).
Other observations involved changes in smooth muscle, sleep quality, urinary incontinence, sweat rate, the rate of transient lower esophageal sphincter relaxations, again, usually in relation to acid reflux, or nausea and vomiting.
#3 – Acupuncture Affects Tissues or Nerves Locally
One of the third biomedical theories right now is how acupuncture can actually locally affect specific tissues or specific nerves. Three of the studies mentioned here refer to these local effects of acupuncture.
These possibly explained acupuncture’s effects on connective tissue, changes in circulation, vasodilation or effects on immune function.
The Bottom Line – If Acupuncture Works or Not – Find Out For Yourself
Now, as to whether acupuncture works or not, there’s a growing body of research (that I try my best to share here) suggesting that it works for a wide variety of conditions.
In addition, having been a patient first, and now studying it, I think the most important thing is to go get acupuncture for yourself – see what it does inside your body – and then make up your own mind.
Well, what’s the Chinese explanation though?
How does acupuncture actually work according to Chinese medicine? Basically what the ancient Chinese realized was that parts of the body were linked to other parts of the body.
Internal conditions and illnesses gave external signs and indications that there were issues going in internally – which is what we use the tongue, pulse, and symptoms to diagnose.
Sometimes, for example, a person has a pain in one place and it’s coming from another place. Like for example, having gall bladder pain, and feeling it in your shoulder.
The gallbladder is considered a digestive organ, which is in the middle, so how is it possible that there is pain being referred up into the shoulder? There’s no direct conduit, at least that we’re aware of.
The Chinese made note of these, and pieced them together.
Acupuncture is built off of the observation of these relationships.
For example Zu San Li, a point on the lower leg, can easily stimulate the stomach and digestion or even generate a very, very strong feeling of warmth going upwards.
By stimulating, with one needle, just the point Zu San Li on the stomach channel, it will send a sensation up the body, up the leg, into the stomach, even into the groin, sometimes even up into the chest, depending on how strongly it’s stimulated.
The Chinese noted that, for some reason, these are interlinked, and the symptoms can often be anywhere on the channel, which is why for example, stimulating the foot or the leg can affect the stomach.
In Chinese medicine, the key question is “What is the relationship, and what else is going on?” versus “how are these things different? What’s the one true cause of these symptoms?”
Acupuncture can treat local symptoms (like the stomach) from further away on the body (like the foot).
For example, if there’s a stomach problem, it’s important to ask what else is going on besides the stomach problem, and why are they related?
That is the ultimate genius of Chinese medicine to me, whereas today in modern biomedicine, a 17th century remnant of the philosophy of the time scientifically, we just look at the stomach to see what’s “not working.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always give us a clear answer of what’s going on, or why it’s going on, if it comes from somewhere else.
Sometimes, it’s more helpful to look further down the chain to see what’s occurring.
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Let me know for you, what are your biggest questions about Chinese medicine, acupuncture and what it can treat?
Comment right here below.