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How Does Acupuncture Work?

How Does Acupuncture Work?

acupuncture theory

I gave a talk on acupuncture this past Tuesday at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, a charter high school in Oakland. I was impressed by how many great questions the students asked! My goal was to explain some of the exciting things we’re beginning to learn about acupuncture from a biomedical perspective. AND to at least get them curious about the fundamental differences between Western medicine and Chinese medicine and be able to appreciate what both perspectives have to offer when it comes to health.

After winning them over with the fact that James Harrison gets acupuncture, I shared the following information.

Because acupuncture has been used continuously for thousands of years to treat everything from migraines to anxiety to back pain, the relevant question isn’t, does acupuncture work, it’s how does acupuncture work?

And Western science is starting to uncover some interesting things. When a needle is placed in the skin, research is revealing that it:

Stimulates an anti-inflammatory response.
Causes the body to release natural pain killers such as opiods and endorphins.
Triggers the muscle fibers to relax and thereby allow more blood flow.
Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of fight or flight).

One of the theories about why acupuncture does this is that it’s like pulling a fire alarm. The body responds to the needle as if it’s a threat and sends resources to investigate. Once it determines that the needle is actually harmless, it still takes the time to heal and restore.

Another theory involves the relationship between acupuncture and the connective tissue. I find this very fascinating! The connective tissue in our body isn’t just the tendons and ligaments; it’s actually a continuous network that encapsulates every organ and connects directly with the nucleus of every single cell in the body.

Researchers in Vermont have found that when an acupuncture needle is placed through the skin and turned, the connective tissue actually wraps around the needle, and after some time has passed, it begins to communicate with other parts of the body through the connective tissue web.

The connective tissue has been described as the “stuff between everything else” which is very similar to the way qi is described in the Chinese classics. You can learn more through this Emerging Science episode that aired on Vermont Public Television (25 minutes).

As interesting as all of this is, a material explanation of something doesn’t necessarily replace other ways of understanding. What biomedicine can reveal right now is only a small percentage of what’s happening during an acupuncture treatment. We can only measure what we have the tools to measure. Imagine what we’ll know 100 years from now!

Western medicine and Chinese medicine look at the body in different ways and assess what it means to be well in different ways. Even the most rabid acupuncture skeptic would never say that we know everything there is to know about what it means to be well and to heal.

There’s lots of room to be more interested in what we don’t already know.

If we were to sum up the theoretical foundation of Western medicine in one sentence, it would be “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” * Western medicine values objectivity above all else. The goal is to isolate the exact mechanism that’s causing a particular symptom and fix it. Any other symptoms or details about the patient are superfluous, especially if they involve emotions or thoughts.

While Western medicine studies things, Chinese medicine studies the relationship between things.

If we were to sum up the theoretical foundation of Chinese medicine in one sentence, it would be “what can be measured is only the most superficial aspect of a deeper functional imbalance.” * The context always matters. An acupuncturist looks at a symptom in relation to all the other details of a person’s life. And the goal is to restore harmony overall, not just fix a broken part.

Both perspectives are valid. To take an integral approach to medicine, we need both. I’m grateful and happy to be able to do my part by working with patients through the lens of Chinese medicine. I approach each patient with the thought, what would it look like for this particular person to really thrive? It will look different for each person, which makes my work endlessly exciting.

* Thanks to Lonny Jarrett for his explication of the differences between Western and Chinese medicine in his book, Nourishing Destiny. The quotes are his words.

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The Nuin Center
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Pittsburgh, PA 15206
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