Acupuncture: Mechanism of Action
I often have patients who ask how acupuncture might work. One of my teachers in Nanjing (China) when asked this question answered very simply, “It just does”. For other more curious minds there is a Western and an ancient theory behind how it works. So I thought I might share with you some of the biological or Western ways in which we know that it works.
Firstly, there is a simple local response. The needle insertion triggers a chemical response. For example it activates our immune system (including mast cells and macrophages) which release triggers that bring more blood flow and dilate the blood vessels to the area being needled. An investigation of acupuncture’s effect on connective tissue revealed that acupuncture with needle rotation induces extensive fibroblast spreading. Fibroblasts, the most common of connective tissue cells, play an important role in wound healing.
Western scientists have found that acupuncture points are strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. Stimulating points along the acupuncture channels enables signals to start the flow of pain-killing biochemicals, such as endorphins. In a recent analysis of acupuncture for pain, involving nearly 18,000 patients and doctors from eight universities and hospitals in the UK, the U.S. and Germany, found that in conditions such as arthritis, back pain and chronic headache, acupuncture was twice as effective as the drugs and exercise recommended by most doc tors.
Other interesting studies revealed that the stimulation of an acupuncture point (P-6) decreased the heart rate. Needling another point (P- 7) on the wrist stimulates dopamine production in the brain. While needling Shen Men (H-7), which curiously translates as the “Spirit Gate, stimulates the release of serotonin and changes key neuropeptides involved in the stress response, this makes it a perfect point for treating anxiety. The acupuncture point, Zusanli (St-36) on the leg increases white blood cells, strengthening our immune response.
Acupuncture can induce gastric relaxation through the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is our involuntary nervous system. It is what controls our heart rate, digestion, saliva and so on.
And the evidence keeps growing. And did you know that even the U.S. Defence Force treats everything from battlefield wounds to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with acupuncture!