How Acupuncture Works (Biomedical Explanation)
Acupuncture Mechanism of Action
The human body is essentially an electromagnetic field, generating electric potentials and currents to conduct impulses along nerve fibers, regulate body tissues and organ functions, govern metabolism, as well as many other processes within the body. In Western terms, this concept is known as bioelectricity. In Eastern medicine, this concept of vital life force energy is known as Qi.
Acupuncture has been used for over 2,500 years to essentially rewire and redirect the bioelectric circuitry of the body to regulate homeostasis and stimulate biological responses. An acupuncture needle serves to create a micro-trauma locally, setting off the body’s immune and anti-inflammatory responses and encouraging the body to heal itself.
Acupuncture points are located along nerve pathways in areas with a higher concentration of nerves, vessels and neuromuscular attachments. In fact, 80% of motor points (where the nerve innervates muscle) are actually major acupuncture points!
What happens when an acupuncture needle is inserted?
Once a needle is inserted, sensory neurons are stimulated affecting the connective tissue. Signals then travel to the brain and spinal cord, affecting the Central & Peripheral Nervous Systems. From there, a cascade of signals are activated, stimulating the release of neurotransmitters and hormones which have a systemic affect to regulate the Endocrine, Immune, Cardiovascular and Digestive Systems.
Various acupuncture points can be selected to affect these systems. For example, acupuncture may be used to regulate blood pressure by stimulating the release of vasodilators. Serotonin and noradrenalin can be stimulated for the treatment of anxiety, depression and mood disorders. Sleep and stress disorders may be addressed by regulating the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic “fight or flight” response by decreasing cortisol levels in the body.
Functional MRIs show evidence that certain points such as LI4, which is located on the hand, stimulate certain areas of the brain and effectively shut off pain receptors, thereby affecting the “fight or flight” response. Similarly GB37, a point on the leg which is known in Chinese medicine to be the empirical point for the eye, has been shown in functional MRIs to affect the area of the brain controlling optic function. BL67 on the pinky toe which is often used to turn a breached baby and stimulate uterine contractions, is associated with the S1 dermatome (supplied by the spinal nerve at S1), located directly behind the uterus.
Acupuncture is most popularly known for pain relief. Post-surgically and for trauma or wound healing, acupuncture serves to increase blood flow to the area, reducing inflammation and swelling to accelerate healing by removing obstructions and allowing WBC and other healing agents to reach the site more quickly and effectively. Studies show that stimulation with an acupuncture needle releases opioid peptides and endorphins to produce an analgesic effect. It is for this reason that acupuncture is now being recommended by the CDC and Joint Commission in the current opioid crisis for natural pain relief over opioid medications. It is also recommended by the American College of Physicians as the first line of defense for low back pain.
Dr. Erin Lee, DACM, L.Ac. is a doctor of Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine, licensed acupuncturist and board certified Chinese herbalist. She obtained her Doctoral degree and Master of Science degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in New York. Previous experience includes working with cancer patients at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Integrative Oncology Center, acute stroke and long-term rehabilitative care at NYU Lutheran Neurological & Orthopedic Rehabilitation, Housing Works (HIV/AIDS), Columbia Health Medical Center and Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center. She resides and practices in New York City.