Acupuncture Q & A : How does acupuncture work?  1

Q: How do the needles make changes in the body? Is there medication on them?

A: While it would take me a book (or many books!) to fully explain how acupuncture works to make functional changes in your body, there is a little “summary” of sorts that I often use during an office visit to explain, in general terms, some of the ways acupuncture works. And no, there isn’t any medication on the needles. 

Each individual point has a different “job”, but there is one thing (or rather, at least one thing) that they all have in common: you take a needle, you break the skin and that needle goes into some tissue. When you puncture that needle through the skin organ (yep! skin is an organ!), you cause a cascade of different reactions to occur. The immune system is alerted that tissue damage has occurred, and that a foreign invader has made it into our body. The immune system sends a group of cells to go investigate what has occurred. This takes about ten minutes: the immune system is trying to figure out if the invader is a virus, bacteria, or other harmful invader that it would need to fight off. After about ten minutes (about the time you start to feel really relaxed…) the body has determined that the invader is merely a sterile, stainless steel needle, no virus, no bacteria, so no cause for alarm. Since the group of investigative cells are no longer needed, the immune system sends out another group of cells to go clean up the initial response. This later group of cells are made up of anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain killing), and anti-histamines that are going to act as a clean up crew. This is what we are referring to when we say acupuncture “activates” the immune system. We’re quite literally cause an “immune reaction” to occur. Now all of these “immune cells” have been released, and have to follow the veinous return and lymphatic system to the liver (and spleen, but that’s more detail then I want to get into today) to get processed and eventually leave the body. Based on where we put the needle is going to indicate where that immune response is going to start, and where it is going to travel along the body, cleaning up  (and HEALING) as it moves along. 

Now, on top of that, each individual point will have another function, based on what type of point it is. Some points go into fascia, or connective tissue. Connective tissue is pizo-electric, which means that when you put a force on it, it creates an electrical impulse. So when we put the needle in, and twist it, we are creating a force on the fascia, which will create an electric impulse that can signal different actions and reactions in the body based on what cells and tissues are downstream of that signal (most are pain regulating). Some cells going into motor points (the points that cause a twitch when they go in), some are signaling the cells that it is inserted into to “dump toxins” (another more complicated process that I will post about another day). There are dozens of different point-specific actions that take place which cause functional changes to take place in our bodies. 

This is really an exciting time to be an acupuncturist (or to be receiving acupuncture from a knowledgeable practitioner who keeps up with research!), because we are able to use modern research and equipment to really investigate what happens in the body when the needles are placed. We are learning more and more, every day, of how acupuncture works, and for a science geek like me, it is really exciting! We get to observe changes in the brain, and other tissues via MRI and CT scanning technology, changes in brainwaves, temperature changes, and many more. I think it is wonderful and eloquent to study and trust the ancient healing art, and just find it that much more profound when we are able to uncover and communicate how it works using modern methods. 

I hope you enjoyed todays’ Acupuncture Q & A! Please keep the discussion going with questions and comments below!

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