There are several theories about how acupuncture works. Some are backed by scientific data. Others are theories that were developed thousands of years ago but have persisted because even modern scientific research can not fully explain how acupuncture works. Let’s start with some theories that are backed by science.
Inserting a needle in to the body is seen as trauma by the body. Much like if you get a cut or splinter, the immune system marshals a cascade of healing reactions in response to this trauma. Therefore, something like what we call “local” needling (in the immediate area of the chief complaint – shoulder pain, knee pain etc.) will kind of wake the body up and make it pay attention to that area. The body reacts by widening blood vessels and calling a whole host of cells and enzymes to the area to clear out damaged tissue, protect the body from invading microorganisms and then rebuild any damage. With the acupuncture needle, we are creating a micro lesion that is easy for the body to deal with but by calling on the bodies immune response it brings all of these cells and enzymes to the affected area. When they find they don’t have much to do, well they go to work on what is causing the persons problem. Additionally, since it takes 3-5 days to heal these lesions, acupunctures effects last even after the needles are removed. When dealing with painful conditions, acupuncture can down regulate the pain processing centers of the brain and can induce the body to produce endorphins, making a powerful pain relieving treatment.
So what about affecting an internal organ, how does that work? When placing needles in the tissue immediately above an organ, the same immune and healing responses are triggered. The organ will have shared blood and nerve supply with the tissue immediately above it so when we create this forced healing response, the organ will receive a boost of healing agents as well.
OK, so what about when a needle is placed in an area far from the chief complaint, such as a point on the wrist treating the neck or low back. At this point we are moving away from the realm of pure scientific data. The Chinese discovered this type of relationship thousands of years ago. It is through a very complex set of pathways that is still not completely understood that the entire body is connected and can be treated. One explanation is that there is connective tissue or fascia that runs throughout the body, connecting and wrapping everything from bones to muscles to organs to nerves and even your brain. Restriction, wrinkle or even tears in one part of the fascial system will affect every other part to a greater or lesser degree. Try this: twist up your shirt down towards your waist. Watch as that twist sends wrinkles and tension lines in several directions. Say one of those lines goes up to the shoulder. This may be what is actually causing shoulder pain. So treating locally will not “fix” the problem, you have to unwind the twist! Or consider a wrinkled bed sheet, you can’t straighten the wrinkle at the wrinkle, you have to go to the edges and “pull” on the sheet to remove the restriction. This type of acupuncture is known as distal needling and the connections through the fascial system are one way to explain these relationships. A really interesting thing is that nerve conduction studies have been performed on people who are paralyzed. When needles are inserted in to these people, the exact same reaction is seen in the brain as is seen in people who are not paralyzed, even though the nerves have been severed. Could this be due to the connections through the fascial system…possibly.
One thing that we have noted at Princeton Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine is that people will reach a really deep state of relaxation or even sleep very quickly. I’ve walked in to the room to pull needles and had people wake with a start, not knowing where they are after only 15 or 20 minutes on the table! And why is this important? To answer that, let’s take a quick look at the nervous system. The bodies nervous system can be broken down in to several divisions. One of these divisions is known as the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which deals with mainly involuntary actions and reactions. The ANS is further divided in to two divisions, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is known as the “fight or flight” division. This is your “adrenal” response, getting you ready to fight the bear or run away from the bear. The parasympathetic division is know as the “rest and digest” half of the ANS. When your body is in parasympathetic mode, it is rebuilding and repairing itself. This is when cells divide, your immune system is rebuilt and strengthened, injuries are repaired. Keep in mind that we are not only talking about major injuries. Simply by walking around, doing our daily activities, we cause tens of thousand of extremely minor “injuries” that the body has to repair, every day! While neither system ever becomes 100% active or dormant, in times of stress, your fight or flight mode becomes more active and when you are resting or sleeping your rest and digest mode becomes dominant. The problem is, it is difficult for the body to heal when it has a multitude of battles to fight and different stresses to respond to. In todays world, we are rarely “unplugged”. We are constantly trying to get more done, we are bombarded by entertainment and information that is meant to be stimulating. While this does not put us in to full on fight or flight mode, it does put us in to a low level of sympathetic dominance that is insidious and even encroaches on many peoples sleep. And what are we supposed to be doing when we are sleeping? That’s right, repairing, rebuilding, regenerating. What does your doctor tell you to do when you are sick? REST! That’s why when people go on vacation, removed from stress, they feel better and heal quicker. From my clinical observations, the use of certain acupuncture points puts people in to a deep state of parasympathetic dominance, very quickly. I also think that is a “condensed” period of rest (say 10 minutes equal to an hour). That is why people feel so rested and relaxed after treatment. Couple this with the fact that the other needles have been inserted to “guide” the bodies healing resources to specific areas, and you have a powerful means of healing.