Tree of Health Integrative Medicine, PLLC


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Acupuncture: How It Works

By Dr. Eleonora Naydis

One of the most common questions I get from my patients when they come in for an acupuncture treatment is: “How does it work?”  Isn’t it amazing that the treatment that has been around for over 5,000 years still remains one of the most effective ways to address health problems?!

My fascination with acupuncture started when I was at Bastyr University, taking courses for my naturopathic medical degree.  I went in to receive acupuncture as a patient to address some back pain.  Not only it relieved my pain, but all the tension and stress melted away after the first treatment.   (Yes, medical students get these!  🙂 )

It so happens that acupuncture has a special effect on endorphin release.   Endorphins are substances made by our own bodies:  they produce feelings of pain relief and well-being.  If you have ever experienced “runner’s high” or just a feeling of complete relaxation after a meditation session, your body has been flooded by endorphins.  It has been found that by applying electric stimulation to the acupuncture points, one can even influence the types of endorphins released, providing a maximal therapeutic benefit. [i]

But all these are modern findings.  5,000 years ago no one has discussed endorphin release!  Traditional acupuncture practitioners were (and still are) using the concept of “Qi” (pronounced as “Chee”).  You have probably heard this term before.  Quantum physics have demonstrated that everything is made of and radiates energy.  That includes us!   Qi, or your vital energy, is known by many names among different cultures: think of prana, spirit, mana, or vital force.   “Qi is the root of a human being,” said Giovanni Maciocia, one of the world-renowned experts in Chinese medicine.

Here is the traditional explanation of how acupuncture works.  Qi flows through your body like river.  It runs through a system of “meridians.”  Meridians are pathways that connect to your body organs and glands; they are the rivers within us.  If the Qi flow, like a water flow, gets blocked, then the body will manifest different signs and symptoms of being unwell.  Acupuncture helps remove the blockages to flow.

Acupuncture points are carefully selected after the acupuncture practitioner speaks with the patients, reviewing the details of their case and conducting an examination of their body.  Traditional Chinese medicine exam involves pulse and tongue diagnosis, as well as palpation of acupuncture points and specific areas area of the body.  There are 26 different pulse quality variations!

Few more interesting facts:

  1. There are 361 traditional acupuncture points on 14 classical meridians.  There are actually hundreds more extra points located on ears, scalp, hands, and other areas of the body.
  2. Acupuncture points have higher electrical conductivity than the rest of the body.[ii]
  3. Earliest acupuncture needles were made of stone.  They were used to press on the points.
  4. Modern acupuncture needles are usually made of stainless steel. They are sterile and single use.  The diameter of usual acupuncture is needle around 0.18 mm, just a little wider than diameter of human hair.

World Health Organization and National Institute of Health state that acupuncture has been proven effective in many common problems, including pain, hormonal imbalances, headaches, digestive and respiratory diseases, anxiety, and addictions.  Acupuncture is effective in the supportive care of patients with cancer, having a positive effect on immune system and relaxation.[iii]

Pretty amazing for a system that was developed so many years ago, right?!


[i] Han Ji-Sheng.  Acupuncture and endorphins.  Neuroscience Letters 361 (2004) 258-261.

[ii] Shang, Charles.  Mechanism of acupuncture – beyond neurohumoral theory.  Medical Acupuncture, Fall 1999-Winter 2000,  Vol. 11(2)

[iii] Wang R.  Integration of Chinese medicine into supportive caner care: a modern role for an ancient tradition.  Cancer Treatment Review.  2001 Aug, 27 (4): 235-46.