How Does Acupuncture Work?

A model of the body as a microcosm of the natural world.

Acupuncture is an ancient system of medicine, based on the observations of countless physicians over the past 2500 years. These observations led to the development of a system of acupuncture meridians, imagined as rivers of energy that run throughout the body. The meridians are linked together by smaller streams and tributaries, forming a vast net that connects every part of the body. If the flow of the river is somehow blocked, there will be flood on one side and drought on the other, or in other words, dysfunction. Acupuncture removes blockages along the meridians, restoring balance and allowing the body to heal itself.

How does it work?

Currently there are no definitive answers on the mechanisms of acupuncture because we are still in the early stages of research. But what we know so far is that acupoints coincide with trigger points, myofascial planes, nerves, and blood vessels. While these points are rich in nerve endings, acupuncture needles do not directly stimulate nerve fibers. Researchers have learned via microscopic ultrasound that manipulating an acupuncture needle in the body causes changes in surrounding collagen structures. These manipulations may induce signals in nearby nerve fibers that then travel to the spinal cord and brain.

The majority of research done on acupuncture has focused on its ability to treat pain.  Trauma to local tissue causes release of inflammatory factors and neurotransmitters, which travel to the spinal cord and brain (where the pain is perceived). Acupuncture causes microtrauma, so may use this same pathway.  Studies of acupuncture involving animals have suggested that acupuncture may impact opiate receptors in different parts of the brain.  It may also trigger an increase in the extracellular concentration of ATP, ADP, AMP, and adenosine, again influencing the pain pathways. Other clinical studies have shown that acupuncture appears to regulate the autonomic nervous system. Finally, functional brain imaging studies done while a person receives acupuncture have shown that activity in deep structures of the brain change when a person receives acupuncture, specifically the limbic system and the insula, a region of the brain deep in the cerebral cortex.