As we all know, acupuncture has thousands of years as an effective health therapy. In the past 20-30 years there have been hundreds of mainstream medicine studies in the United States showing acupuncture effective for more than 100 symptoms and diagnoses. Every acupuncturist and almost every acupuncture patient know how effective it is. So what is the complex neurology and biochemistry of how acupuncture works?

Due to its popularity and success in the West, a great deal of attention has been focused on elucidating how acupuncture works in terms of Western physiology. Based on classical descriptions overlain with modern understanding, we now know that qi flow corresponds to nerve transmission, connective tissue planes, metabolic components carried in blood such as oxygen, hormones, neurotransmitters and nutrients as well as the functional energy of an organ system, depending on the context in which it is used. Acupuncture has been demonstrated to regulate and improve the function of all of these components, which are so integral to health. In essence, acupuncture seems to “grease the wheels” of the dynamics of body/mind self-regulating functions.

In terms of physiology and biochemistry, acupuncture has been shown to stimulate nerves and connective tissue resulting in profound effects on the nervous system including regulation of key areas of the brain. This improved function results in the body producing its own natural chemicals involved in pain relief and the reduction of inflammation as well as releasing neurotransmitters that create a feeling of relaxation and well-being. Advanced techniques such as fMRI brain imaging and proteomics are continuing to add to a deeper understanding of how acupuncture helps the body to heal itself.

Science Behind Acupuncture

Study After Study Shows Power of Acupuncture

An analysis of data from 20 studies (6,376 participants) of people with painful conditions (back pain, osteoarthritis, neck pain, or headaches) showed that the beneficial effects of acupuncture continued years after the end of treatment for all conditions.

In addition to pain conditions, acupuncture has also been studied for at least 50 other health problems. There is evidence that acupuncture may help relieve seasonal allergy symptoms, stress, incontinence, and nausea and vomiting associated with cancer treatment, digestion, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, and mental clarity. It may also help relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life in people with asthma, but it has not been shown to improve lung function.

Erythema---Inflammation That Initiates the Healing Process

Erythema around needles is common in acupuncture treatment, particularly in the back and the abdominal area. The Five Element tradition of acupuncture regards the erythema/flare at the Back Shu points after needling as a sign of a positive clinical outcome. The flare may remain for a few minutes and become a white wheal. The majority of patients who receive Aggressive Energy (AE) treatment report feeling better. They report beneficial effects. such as having a clearer mind, feeling lighter, and feeling more relaxed and balanced. Anxiety tends to diminish and the patient feels a sense of “my old self returning.”59 It is well-documented that erythema is mediated by an axon reflex.42,60 While acupuncture stimulation causes a nociceptive sensation in the primary sensory cortex via afferent pathways, the bifurcation of the afferent fibers releases substance P. Substance P causes dilatation of arterioles that, in turn, cause the erythema or flare. Substance P also activates mast cells to release histamine. In turn, histamine increases capillary permeability, leading to a local accumulation of tissue fluids—the wheal response. Thus, as a form of inflammation, erythema may be seen as an early sign of a therapeutic outcome.

Neurology of Acupuncture

Over the last few decades there has been a widespread and increasing interest in acupuncture around the world. Investigators have demonstrated that the nervous system, neurotransmitters and endogenous substances respond to needling stimulation and electroacupuncture (EA) . The EA afferent pathways and central sites have been identified in the anterolateral tract in the spinal cord, the reticulogigantocellular nucleus, the raphe magnus, the dorsal part of the periaqueductal central gray (D-PAG), the posterior and anterior hypothalamus and the medial part of the centromedian nucleus of the thalamus . It has been established that acupuncture analgesia is mediated by opioid peptides. Recent studies have demonstrated that EA stimulation of hindlimb acupoints induces an up-regulation of neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS)/NADPH diaphorase (NADPHd) expression in the gracile nucleus. Nitric oxide (NO) in the gracile nucleus mediates acupuncture signals through dorsal medulla–thalamic pathways.