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Acupuncture and How it Works

Acupuncture is becoming an increasingly sought after treatment for a wide variety of conditions. For some people it is appealing because of its ancient and mysterious origins. For others, they have heard of the wonderful benefits obtained from acupuncture sessions by friends or family members. More recently however, acupuncture is becoming mainstream even within western medicine because research is showing it to be an effective option with little to no side effects.

When it comes to acupuncture and how it works, there are a few different theories. Acupuncture is probably the most common form of treatment within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The theory according to TCM is that acupuncture is used to balance energy systems within the body. Throughout Asia, there is a concept of the body as having a ‘life force’ or ‘vital energy’ that flows within it. This energy or force is responsible for optimal health and healing processes. The Chinese call this life force Chi, in Japan it is called Qi, and Sanskrit it is called Prana. It is taught in TCM that the stimulation of acupuncture points can help with the flow of this force by stimulating or even redirecting its flow. When the correct points are stimulated, the body is more optimally regulated allowing optimal health and healing.

In Western medicine there is a recognition that acupuncture can work extremely well, but the concept of how it works is different. For example, acupuncture needle insertion can activate nerve receptors in the skin and muscles that then cause a release of the body’s natural pain relievers such as endorphins and enkephalins. There are also chronic pain reflex mechanisms that can sometimes be turned off with the use of acupuncture stimulation. Functional MRI studies even show that pain centers of the brain become less activated after acupuncture sessions. These are some explanations of how acupuncture is beneficial in helping to manage chronic pain.

There is also the thought that acupuncture helps speed the healing of injuries by the stimulation of tissues with needles. The needles are small enough that they don’t hurt, but still send enough of an alarm to trick the body into initiating its natural healing response. The body recognizes the needles as a foreign object and naturally sends in red and white blood cells to start to clean up the area. This can obviously be helpful considering that many injuries become chronic conditions because of the lack of proper blood flow to the injured area.

One of my own theories on how acupuncture works has to do with mind-body awareness. Based on research in psychoneuroimmunology and the bio-psychosocial model of health, it is clear that there is a mind-body connection. This just simply means that what and how we think has an effect on the body. Conversely, how we treat the body and what the body feels can effect the mind. For example, meditation and mindfulness are becoming extremely useful tools in treating a wide variety of conditions. Some of these include back and neck pains, arthritis, chronic muscular skeletal pains, stress, anxiety, depression and a wide variety of gastrointestinal issues. Ironically, these are the same issues in which acupuncture is shown to be most effective.

It has been my observation that for some people, acupuncture can help them reach deep levels of relaxation. Additionally, they turn their attention inward, becoming more in tune with their body. This level of body awareness is a crucial step for any healing process. Body awareness or mindfulness is great for stress reduction, but is also used for rehabilitation. Becoming more aware of a certain part of the body allows more coordination and control of that area. In a sense, it wakes that area up and allows it to be fully functional again. Acupuncture might very well be a great way to help reestablish a body awareness sensation to relevant areas. With a deep sense of relaxation and a renewed connection to a body part, a healing process is more likely to occur.

I like to think of acupuncture in this way because it can be used as an up to date scientific explanation, but it also retains some traditional philosophy. The fact is that modern medicine still knows very little about the body and how it works. The more that drugs and surgery are used, the more they are finding adverse reactions and potential complications. Maybe there is something to be said about the body being able to naturally heal itself. Maybe acupuncture does allow for a life force, vital energy or just the mind-body awareness to flow and heal.

I hope that you enjoyed and learned something from my article ‘Acupuncture and How it Works’. The research article used for reference was from the Medical Acupuncture Journal titled ‘Acupuncture-A Biomedical Information Therapy’ volume 28, Number 6, 2016.