How does acupuncture work?

The practice of acupuncture dates back to ancient china, and its use and prevalence in the Western world has been relatively recent. In this article we look at how this ancient therapeutic art aims to alleviate disease and symptoms like pain.

Traditional views of how acupuncture works

The traditional approach to acupuncture has its roots in ancient Chinese beliefs regarding how the body works. These philosophies are still retained by many acupuncturists both here in the UK and abroad, however it is important to point out that as of yet there is no scientific evidence to support these beliefs.

The ancient Chinese believed in an all pervading life energy called Qi, a substance vital to good health and happiness. The belief is that Qi travels through the body in a manner not dissimilar to the flow of blood. Qi however is thought to travel through its own system of vessels called meridians, and when these vessels become disrupted, thereby disrupting the flow of life energy, disease and discomfort occur.

The traditional approach to acupuncture is therefore based on clearing obstructions and blockages that disrupt the flow of Qi. In doing so acupuncture is thought to treat a variety of symptoms and conditions, including: muscle tightness, pain, arthritis, and nausea.

Modern views of how acupuncture works

Because of the lack of evidence to support the existence of Qi or meridians, modern medicine has developed its own theories to account for acupuncture’s purported effects. It is important to note that the effectiveness of acupuncture is still an area of controversy and discussion, with many sources disagreeing on the actual effectiveness of the treatment.

It is thought that needles applied through acupuncture can stimulate nerves responsible for pain, thereby alleviating the symptom. Similarly, needles have proven an effective method of relieving muscle tension in some instances, and as such it is thought that acupuncture might work through these means. That being said, there has yet to be any conclusive evidence that this is the case, although it is argued that this might be because of the huge variation in acupuncture techniques and tools.

Alternatively acupuncture may work by triggering the release of neurotransmitters that make up the body’s own pain management response. These chemicals are released from nerve cells in response to certain stimulus, and include endorphins, norepinephrine, and serotonin amongst others.

Another theory of acupuncture’s mechanisms of action is perhaps a less flattering one, and is based on a phenomenon called the placebo effect. Simply put, the placebo effect occurs when a treatment that has no physiological effect achieves a positive response from the patient because he or she believes that said treatment will help them. The placebo effect is well documented and used in a number of instances, primarily during trials and tests of new drugs. This effect could account for the huge variety of responses to acupuncture observed and recorded across the world. It also poses an obstacle to research into the effectiveness of acupuncture as results from these tests are subjective and vulnerable to interference from the placebo effect.

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