How does acupuncture work ?
I get asked this question a lot! There are several prominent theories and many studies showing how one or more points affects a particular system, but no cohesive theory that can explain every point action.
What I believe is that different points function by different mechanisms, based on their body location. Many of the theories about how acupuncture work are based on studying one or another major points, but not all point locations are similar to each other.
When most people think about acupuncture, they are familiar with its ability to control pain. However, acupuncture has a proven record of treating a variety of endocrine, circulatory, and systemic conditions. Over the last few decades, research has been conducted seeking to explain how acupuncture works and what it treats. Below I summarized it as I could, but if you dont want to read more, here is the short list.
- Neurotransmitter Theory
- Autonomic Nervous System Theory
- Gate Control Theory
- Vascular-Interstitial Theory
- Blood Chemistry Theory
There are a few others with good evidence, but these 5 are the top theories out there currently. For explanations of what they mean, please read on.
The 1997 National Institute of Health (NIH) Consensus on Acupuncture reported that “studies have demonstrated that acupuncture can cause multiple biological responses, mediated mainly by sensory neurons, to many structures in the central nervous system. This can lead to activation of pathways, affecting various physiological systems in the brain, as well as the periphery.” The NIH Consensus went on to include research suggesting that acupuncture “may activate the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, resulting in a broad spectrum of systemic effects. Alterations in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, and changes in the regulation of blood flow, both centrally and peripherally, have been documented. There is also evidence of alterations in immune functions produced by acupuncture.”
-National Institute of Health Consensus Conference on Acupuncture, Program & Abstracts (Bethesda, MD, November 3-5 1997).
Below are the current theories on the mechanism of acupuncture:
Acupuncture affects higher brain areas, stimulating in the secretion of beta-endorphins and enkephalins in the brain and spinal cord. The release of neurotransmitters influences the immune system and antinociceptive (pain) system.
- Neuro-Acupuncture, Scientific evidence of acupuncture revealed, 2001, Cho, ZH., et al., page 128. -Acupuncture – A Scientific Appraisal, Ernst, E., White, A., 1999, page 74. – Acupuncture Energetics – A Clinical Approach for Phsyicians, Helms, Dr. J., 1997, pages 41-42)
Autonomic Nervous System Theory
Acupuncture stimulates the release of norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and several types of endogenous opioids, affecting changes in their turnover rate, normalizing the autonomic system, and reducing pain.
- Anatomy of Neuro-Anatomical Acupuncture, Volume 1, Wong, Dr.J., page 34 -Han, J.S. “Acupuncture Activates Endogenous Systems of Analegsia.” National Institute of health Consensus Conference on Acupuncture, Program & Abstracts (Bethesda, MD, Nov 3-5 1997)
Gate Control Theory
Acupuncture activates non-nociceptive receptors that inhibit transmission of nociceptive (pain) signals in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, inhibiting painful stimuli.
- Neuro-Acupuncture, Scientific evidence of acupuncture revealed, 2001, Cho, ZH., et al., page 116.
Acupuncture effects the electrical system of the body by creating or enhancing closed circuit transport in tissues. This facilitates healing by allowing the transfer of material and electrical energy between normal and injured tissues.
- Acupuncture Energetics – A Clinical Approach for Phsyicians, Helms, Dr. J., 1997, page 66.
Blood Chemistry Theory
Acupuncture affects the blood concentrations of triglycerides, cholesterol, and phospholipids, suggesting that acupuncture can both raise and lower peripheral blood components thereby regulating the body toward homeostasis.
- Acupuncture Energetics – A Clinical Approach for Phsyicians, Helms, Dr. J., 1997, page 41