As an acupuncturist, the most dreaded question someone might ask me is, “Why does acupuncture work?” The problem with this question is that we acupuncturists still really don’t know why it does. Most acupuncturists, when pressed for an answer, will simply explain that acupuncture returns balance to the body, and that it helps to restore the proper movement of energy throughout the body. So, I could do the same. I could go into a full explanation about the movement of the body’s energy (or “Qi”, pronounced chee) throughout the body, or I could explain the principles of yin and yang and how they relate to the body and disease. In short, I could easily explain why acupuncture works from a Traditional Oriental Medicine standpoint. However, most patients are interested in an explanation that involves, say, muscles, nerves, or organs.
So, here’s what we do know. We know that acupuncture somehow stimulates the immune system to remove inflammation from the body, and that it triggers the central nervous system to release endorphins that help to block pain and to elicit a euphoric effect. Research with brain imaging has also shown that specific parts of the brain are stimulated with the needling of different acupuncture points. For example, points pertaining to hearing or speaking will light up the parts of the brain that also pertain to those functions. Most recently, another research study has found a correlation between acupuncture and the molecule adenosine. Adenosine is known to inhibit pain, reduce inflammation, and regulate sleep in the body. In this study, adenosine was shown to increase by quantities of 24 times its normal level near an acupuncture point when a needle was inserted.
The problem is that, while this information does give us an idea as to how acupuncture works (meaning, it helps to explain what happens when a needle is placed in an acupuncture point), it still doesn’t really satisfy the question of why it works. It also leaves me wondering why a needle inserted into the skin can have such a profound effect not only on the tissues the needle is inserted into, but on the entire body. For example, I can very effectively treat insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, asthma, and anxiety to name a few. These are very complicated disorders to treat by any means. So, until the big why is answered more effectively, I’ll have to simply be reassured that it does work, and really, isn’t that all that matters?
Read more about acupuncture research at the following links: