How Does Acupuncture Work?

According to Chinese philosophy, the body contains two opposing forces: yin and yang. When these forces are in balance, the body is healthy. Energy, called “qi” (pronounced “chee”), flows like rivers along pathways, or meridians, throughout the body. This constant flow of energy keeps the yin and yang balanced. However, the flow of energy can sometimes be blocked, like water getting stuck behind a dam. A disruption in the flow of energy can lead to illness. The goal of acupuncture is to correct imbalances of flow and restore health through stimulation, generally by inserting needles through the skin at points along the meridians of the body.

Scientists have attempted to explain the actual physical effects of acupuncture on the human body. Some researchers suggest that pain relief happens when acupuncture needles stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissues. Another well-accepted theory is that acupuncture releases pain-relieving chemicals, such as endorphins and serotonin. Acupuncture may also be effective because it targets painful tender points, sometimes called trigger points. Additionally, acupuncture may decrease pain-causing inflammation by stimulating the body’s pituitary gland to release cortisol, a hormone that is known to reduce inflammation.

While the exact manner in which acupuncture works is unclear, its effectiveness is undeniable. The results speak for themselves.

What Happens In a Typical Acupuncture Session?

During the initial acupuncture session, the acupuncturist takes a thorough history and does a physical examination, including evaluation of the tongue and pulse. Some acupuncturists may ask about the patient’s diet to evaluate his or her nutritional well-being and may recommend changes that include herbal supplements. The first session is generally longer than follow-up appointments so that a treatment plan can be created for the specific conditions and complaints of each patient. During follow-up appointments, the acupuncturist reassesses the progress of the treatment plan and makes changes if needed. The initial evaluation may take up to 90 minutes with follow-up and maintenance appointments between 45-60 minutes. When treating children, the evaluation process is shortened substantially.

Following each evaluation, the acupuncturist inserts needles at specific acupuncture points related to the patient’s complaints. Needle insertion causes very little sensation; some patients describe a light pinching, grabbing, or tingling. Some feel nothing at all. The needles are sterile and disposable and are not reused on other patients. This eliminates the risk of spreading disease from patient to patient. The needles are removed at the end of the session.  Traditional acupuncture may be supplemented by other forms of treatment, including cupping, moxibustion, and Chinese herbal medicine.