To be totally honest, we don’t know exactly how acupuncture works from a Western scientific perspective. We have some really promising ideas that have been validated by multiple researchers, but aren’t 100% definitive.
Those promising ideas can be broken up into 4 main categories:
- Works on the brain – Studies using fMRI, a kind of MRI that shows brain activity, have shown that stimulating acupuncture points make corresponding brain areas more active. For example, there was a study using a point on the leg that treats the eye and vision problems. Stimulating this point made the visual cortex of the brain more active.
- Works on the nervous system – Studies have also shown that acupuncture can work on the nerves in either an excitatory or inhibitory way. Acupuncture has been shown to close “pain gateways,” which blocks pain signals from entering the spinal cord. There is also evidence that acupuncture causes the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins, which block pain signals, increase circulation, and allow for better flow of body fluids. Endorphins are 200 times more powerful than morphine at stopping pain. Adenosine, a nucleoside, has an inhibitory effect on the nervous system, which is released when the body is injured and it needs to stop pain. Since acupuncture also increases serotonin, acupuncture can benefit a person’s mood, which is why acupuncture treats depression.
- Works on the hormone (endocrine) system – This category overlaps with the nervous system theory above because endorphins also act on the hormone system. This overlap is probably the reason why acupuncture can treat conditions that seem random and unrelated. Acupuncture has been shown to release beta-endorphins, which can act on the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are our stress glands, which is why acupuncture likely makes us feel less stressed when receiving treatments over the long term.
- Works on circulation – The release of all of these compounds causes the blood vessels to relax, improving circulation of blood (blood flow) and also of body fluids. That means the body can get fresh blood, full of nutrients, to cells and the internal organs, and also carry away cellular waste, dead or damaged cells, and other toxins to be removed by the Liver and Kidneys.
Despite the mechanism of action (the reason why acupuncture works) not being definitively known, we see in the clinic day after day that acupuncture works and people get results. It’s OK to have a bit of disbelief. I don’t mind a skeptic. The struggle we go through as we try to understand an idea is a beautiful thing. So I always encourage people to try acupuncture before passing judgement. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve only had one person say “acupuncture isn’t for me” because patients typically leave the clinic feeling refreshed and calm. So while scientist continue to test acupuncture in the lab, come to the clinic to get in on the benefits.