Acupuncture is the insertion of fine, sterile needles at specific points on the body to stimulate and create biochemical responses to promote healing and well-being. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses several types of diagnosis to assess the flow and function of blood and energy (qi) in the body, in order to determine the nature of an imbalance or ailment. Once a pattern of imbalance is identified, it can be treated with acupuncture. According to TCM, stimulating specific acupuncture points corrects imbalances in the flow of energy through channels known as meridians. Where blood and energy are obstructed, pain or disease results. Acupuncture aims to unblock obstructions and restore the free flow of blood and qi.
Here are five popular theories as to why acupuncture works from a Western perspective. In fact, more than one of these can be happening simultaneously during a session.
The Gate Control Theory: When we experience pain, a tiny electrical current, called an impulse, moves from the area of injury upward through the spinal cord into the brain via nerves. The nerves along this pathway can only handle a limited number of impulses at one time. Acupuncture generates a competing stimulus and effectively interrupts the neurotransmitters of the pain impulses from reaching the brain, 'gating' them off.
The Natural Painkiller Theory: This theory maintains that an inserted acupuncture needle creates a micro-trauma which sends an impulse to the brain and stimulates the release of endorphins and enkephalins, which respectively block pain at the brain stem and spinal cord.
The Neurotransmitter Theory: The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight, and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance. Levels of certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are affected by acupuncture. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in regulating mood. For this reason, acupuncture can be very successful with depression and mood disorders. It is also why people feel so relaxed after a treatment.
The Augmentation Theory: Acupuncture can assist in maintaining a healthy immune system as it raises levels of triglycerides, specific hormones, prostaglandins, white blood cells, gamma globulins, opsonins and overall anti-body levels. A healthy immune system is vital for both the prevention of disease and the treatment of current conditions.
The Circulatory Theory: Acupuncture has the effect of increasing blood flow to an injury site and causes vasodilation by releasing histamine (one of the body's vasodilators). Chris Kresser summed it up perfectly (see link below), "Everything the body needs to heal is in the blood, including oxygen, nutrients we absorb from food, immune substances, hormones, analgesics (painkillers) and anti-inflammatories. Restoring proper blood flow is vital to promoting and maintaining health."
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has many long-term benefits as it focuses on prevention and the root cause of a health issue; however, it is not a substitute for Western medicine. Western medicine is second to none in cases of emergency. When in doubt, see your family physician first. Using an integrative approach of both TCM and Western medicine is most beneficial.If you would like a further easy-to-understand explanation of acupuncture, please check out this article by Chris Kresser.
If you would like to go even further in-depth (and are into randomized double-blind placebo controlled trials), please check out this review citing over 70 different acupuncture trials.
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