Making a first appointment to see an acupuncturist can seem like a leap of faith. Many call after hearing about effective treatment results from a friend or in a news article, but have trouble believing that those little, hair-like needles can eliminate a chronic disease or painful condition. How can inserting tiny needles cause pain and disease to disappear?

This is a big question that can be difficult to answer. There are two types of explanations. One is from a Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) point of view that explains Qi flow in the acupuncture channels. The other is a western biomedical explanation that discusses the role of endorphins in the pain pathways of the central nervous system.

The TCM Explanation

Acupuncture, the insertion of tiny, hair-thin needles into acupuncture points on the body, stimulates your body’s Qi, which then sends signals to the nervous and immune systems telling them how to inhibit pain and resolve disease processes. Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) is a Chinese word meaning life energy. By Qi, we refer to the energy we use to move our arms and legs, for our organs to perform their functions of breathing, pumping blood and digesting food and for our brain to think. Without Qi, the body is lifeless.[1]

Like blood, lymph or nerves, Qi flows in a vessel system, called acupuncture meridians or channels. Along the channels are acupuncture points. The points are described as wells that reach the river of Qi in the channel below. By inserting a needle into the acupuncture point, the acupuncturist stimulates Qi in the channel. These points have certain varying functions. Some points are used for pain relief while others are used to help relieve the symptoms associated with a rash. The acupuncturist chooses points by both function and location.

Western Science Explains Acupuncture

Most of the western, scientific research attempting to discover or explain the mechanism of acupuncture has focused on pain relief. Areas around an acupuncture point have shown to a high concentration of nerve endings and bundles, mast cells (used for immune function), lymphatic’s, and capillaries. [2]

Nerve fibers travel from acupuncture points to the spinal cord. Ultimately, they communicate to the brainstem and hypothalamus-pituitary gland. Stimulation of these areas in the brain and spinal cord cause the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, and enkephalins that cause inhibition of nerve pain fibers, effectively blocking the transmission of pain sensations. [3]

Studies have shown that acupuncture can alter the release of various hormones, such as prolactin, oxytocin, luteinizing and growth hormone, and modulate thyroid function. [4],[ 5],[6] The effect on hormone release might, in part, explain acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating gynecological conditions such as PMS, amenorrhea (no menstrual periods) infertility and premenopausal syndrome.

In short, how acupuncture works…

  • acupuncture stimulates the release of pain-relieving endorphins
  • acupuncture influences the release of neurotransmitters, substances that transmit nerve impulses to the brain
  • acupuncture influences the autonomic nervous system
  • acupuncture stimulates circulation
  • acupuncture relaxes muscles
  • acupuncture influences the electrical currents of the body

Common Conditions Treated By Acupuncture

  • migraines and tension headaches
  • sinusitis
  • common cold
  • trigeminal neuralgia
  • tennis elbow
  • sciatica
  • arthritis
  • menstrual cramps
  • fibromyalgia
  • low back pain/ neck pain
  • infertility
  • joint pain
  • sinus congestion
  • allergy symptoms
  • stress/ anxiety

[1] Davis R. Acupuncture sticks it to pain, brain MRI shows, USA Today 9Dec 1999: 5D.
[2] Kendall DE: Parts I and II. A scientific model of acupuncture, Am J Acupuncture 17:251-268, 343-360, 1989.
[2] Pomeranz B: Scientific basis of acupuncture. In Stux G, Pameranz B: Basics of acupuncture, ed4, Berlin, 1998, Springer, pp 6-47.
[3] Pullan PT et al: Endogenous opiates modulate release of growth hormone in response to electro acupuncture, Life Sci 32: 1705-1709, 1983.
[4] Smith FWK: The neurophysiological basis of acupuncture. In Schoen AM: Veterinary acupuncture, St. Louis, 1994, Moxby, pp 33-53.
[5] Bossut DFB et al: Electro acupuncture-induced analgesia I sheep: measurement of cutaneous pain thresholds and plasma concentrations of prolactin and B -endorphin immunoreactivity, Am J Vet Res 47:669-676, 1986.
[6] Acupuncture: NIH Consens Statement 1997 Nov 3-5; 15(5): 7-14.