Understanding Acupuncture

Garden Acupuncture explains how acupuncture works through the lense of modern medicine.

Acupuncture is a 5,000 year old medicine, which confused many people, including doctors and scientists,  throughout history. One main reason is the concept of what we call an invisible life force (or Qi), which travels along 14 meridians in the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) states that illness and pain are due to blockages or imbalances in a patient's Qi and that by placing thin needles into the body at precise points can unblock the meridians allowing the treatment of everything from allergy to anxiety, from pain to fertility.

As fanciful as that seems, acupuncture does have real effects on the human body, which scientists are documenting using high-tech tools. Neuroimaging studies show that it seems to calm areas of the brain that register pain and activate those involved in rest and recuperation. Doppler ultrasound shows that acupuncture increases blood flow in treated areas. Thermal imaging shows that it can make inflammation subside.

But wait..you say there is more?

Scientists are also finding parallels between the ancient concepts and modern anatomy. Many of the 365 acupuncture points correspond to nerve bundles or muscle trigger points. Several meridians track major arteries and nerves. "If people have a heart attack, the pain will radiate up across the chest and down the left arm. That's where the heart meridian goes," says Peter Dorsher, a specialist in pain management and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. "Gallbladder pain will radiate to the right upper shoulder, just where the gallbladder meridian goes.

Studies in the early 1980s found that acupuncture works in part by stimulating the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals, much like vigorous exercise does. Now, a growing body of research suggests that it may have several mechanisms of action. Those include stimulating blood flow and tissue repair at the needle sites and sending nerve signals to the brain that regulate the perception of pain and reboot the autonomic nervous system, which governs unconscious functions such as heart beat, respiration and digestion, according to Alejandro Elorriaga, director of the medical acupuncture program at McMaster University in Ontario, which teaches a contemporary version to physicians.

Many people continue to think that acupuncture and TCM are not applicable, appropriate, or even ethical. But with the growing number of people using it every year (2007 3.2 Million Americans used acupuncture compared to 2.1 Million in 2001), we think we are here and a very exciting time for our profession.