Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How does acupuncture work?

By Mary Oleksowicz, MSTOM, L. Ac

I am often asked how acupuncture works.  The truth is there are several different explanations. The Eastern or traditional explanation involves the flow of qi (energy) through meridians. Meridians are pathways by which the energy of our body not only flows but also inter-connects our internal organs with the more exterior acupuncture points.  Acupuncture points can be used preventatively to maintain this inter-connection or accessed in times of illness to restore the body to a healthier state.

Western explanations of how acupuncture works are more varied and scientifically based. Some scientists recognize the trigger point effect of acupuncture points. This means that when pressure is applied to certain points, the afflicted muscles release, allowing the person to feel less stress and tension. Other western theories recognize the effects of acupuncture on the body’s central nervous system. Acupuncture points can affect the release of hormones and neurotransmitters. These natural chemicals can reduce inflammation, dull pain, regulate organ function and even boost the immune system.

More specific theories such as the “Gate Theory” attempt to integrate several ideals into a single  explanation. This theory proposes a balance between stimulation of the pain fibers and inhibition of that stimulus, so that pain is perceived only if the pain input overrides the inhibition of pain. This theory explains acupuncture as working almost as a fuse breaker. If a person is already in pain, the additional stimulation provided by the needles “short circuits” the system and the client feels pain relief.

With so many possible justifications, there often seems to be more questions than answers once the topic is explored.  So how do acupuncturists believe that the technique works? Most acupuncturists ascribe to a combination of the Eastern philosophy and one or more of the more Western based mechanisms of action. Personally, I believe that how acupuncture works depends on which point(s) are being utilized. For example, when treating carpal tunnel syndrome, using Pericardium 6, an acupuncture point located over the median nerve, would help to reduce pain and inflammation akin to the Gate Theory.  Using the point Gallbladder 20, located at the base of the head, to release muscle tensions and reduce headaches would rely more on a trigger point approach.  Using auricular (Ear) acupuncture points such as Sympathetic and Shenmen for smoking cessation would tend to regulate endorphins and neurotransmitters to promote a feeling of peace and relaxation.

While no individual theory completely explains the mechanism of acupuncture, an integrated clarification more accurately explains how this approach works.

 Isn’t that the essence of a holistic method anyway? 


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