Why is Acupuncture So Effective for Pain? A Simple Scientific Explanation
At the center of three thousand-year-old Chinese Medicine is the concept that Qi (pronounced “chee”), or life energy, flows through the body within acupuncture meridians. As long as Qi is abundant and flowing freely, the body remains in balanced health. When the Qi flow is obstructed, however, it becomes backed up in one area of the body and restricted in another area. The result? Pain and discomfort. Sickness and poor health.
There is a saying in Chinese Medicine, “If there is pain there is no free flow; if there is free flow there is no pain”.
Many life factors can influence the quality and quantity of Qi within the body; these factors also cause the obstruction or weakening of Qi and the creation of pain or illness. Common sources include trauma (both physical and emotional), imbalanced structural alignment, poor diet, stress, lack of exercise or over-exertion, environmental toxins, seasonal changes and genetic factors. Acupuncture promotes and re-establishes the free flow of Qi, allowing the body to self-correct.
But how exactly?
Terms such as "Qi" and "meridian" remain very obscure from a modern medical and science-based perspective. Difficulties in translation and interpretation of ancient Chinese medical principles and terminologies created these terms that are essentially useless within the modern medical community. More current translations connect "Qi" with oxygen and other life-giving components circulating within the blood, and "meridians" with nerve and circulatory pathways that stretch from head to toe.
If you are a visual person, I like to provide the analogy of Body Worlds, a traveling exposition of dissected human bodies that have been preserved through the process of plastination. If you haven’t seen these amazing preservations, you can visit the Denver Museum of Natural Science. You can see in minute detail the thousands of tiny network vessels lining body tissues from head to toe, and for me this provides a very visceral view of what the Chinese meant by the terms “meridians” and “network vessels” ( ever smaller meridians branching off from the larger).
Along the fourteen major meridians identified by the ancient Chinese lie the three hundred and sixty one classic acupuncture points used by acupuncturists today. Science is increasingly discovering that many of these acupuncture points appear to exist in areas with a high concentration of nerves and blood vessels also known as neurovascular nodes that reach very specific areas deep within the organ systems as well as on the surface of the body. In other words, science is slowly revealing what the ancient Chinese mapped out through centuries of clinical observation and documentation.
Thus, there is an explanation that is easier for most people in our modern medical and scientific model to understand: needling acupuncture points has a direct effect on increasing blood circulation locally and in areas that are distal to (far from) the actual needle insertion due to specific nerve and vessel pathways.
The needles additionally activate and stimulate the nervous system to release innate pain-relieving and immune-boosting chemicals via blood circulation into specific areas, including the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. Modern clinical studies exploring acupuncture’s effect on stimulating or boosting natural biochemical production continue, and include: correlations between acupuncture and the rise of endorphins and other natural pain-relieving chemicals in the blood, as well as the stimulation of local and systemic immune responses .
We know blood is rich in life-sustaining and healing oxygen, natural analgesics, anti-inflammatories, immune components and endorphins. Much of the problem with healing from injury and disease is due to obstructions in access to blood, due to local inflammation, scar tissue/adhesions, toxic buildup, and the nature of the tissue itself (tendons inherently lack the blood supply of muscle tissue). Acupuncture works immediately to begin stimulating increased blood flow into these compromised areas.
On a more systemic level, the improved natural biochemical access and balance produced by acupuncture results in greater energetic, physical and emotional well-being. Of course acupuncture isn’t magic: the number of treatments depend on the severity and length of time symptoms have persisted, and a good rule of thumb is for every year someone has had a symptom, one month of treatment. If there are problems with structual alignments in the spine and joints, then it is often most effectively used in tandem with chiropractic.
Of course sometimes the damage is too great for acupuncture or other palliative therapies. There is a time and place for surgery, and the more aggressive treatments that are the hallmark of our conventional medical model. But even if surgery is required, acupuncture can be an incredible support in stimulating the body to heal quickly and with far fewer complications, while improving sleep, mood and energy levels along the way.
No matter which explanation--ancient or modern--works best for you, acupuncture is simply a three thousand-year-old time-tested medical technique that works, and is increasingly being utilized by the lay public and recommended by doctors in the West. Acupuncture is currently recognized by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to be effective in the treatment of:
Muscle, Bone and Nerve Pain and Disease
Joint Pain and Arthritis
Digestive Disorders, such as IBS, colitis, and reflux
Respiratory Disorders, such as asthma, sinus infection, cough
Immune Disorders, such as flu/cold symptoms, allergies, and lowered immunity
Dermatological Disorders, such as eczema, acne, and psoriasis
Gynecological Disorders, such as PMS symptoms, fertility problems, menstrual pain, and menopausal syndrome
Emotional and Sleep Disorders, including anxiety and depression