Over 2,500 Years In The Making
Acupuncture is a healing technique that has been used for over 2,500 years originating in China and the Far East. All styles of acupuncture trace their roots back to the first known book of Chinese Medicine, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, which dates back to the first century BC. Acupuncture focuses on restoring balance and function in the body along with promoting and tapping into the body’s inherent and innate ability to self-heal by stimulating certain anatomic areas referred to as acupuncture points. These points are most commonly stimulated by the insertion of fine, hair-like sterile needles into the skin. Other methods can also be used to stimulate these points including manual pressure, heat, electrical stimulation and laser.
Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy describes an energy that flows through your body, called qi (pronounced “chee”). This energy flows through well-defined channels referred to as meridians described in a similar manner as to how water flows down a river. The body relies on this continual flow of energy for optimal function, regulation and healing. If this natural flow of energy is blocked, similar to how a dam blocks the flow of water in a river, congestion builds up possibly causing pain, loss of normal function and regulation which may in turn lead to illness. Acupuncture is used to release the congested qi, which in turn restores normal function, regulation and self-healing.
There are multiple theories as to how and why acupuncture works. One possibility is that acupuncture promotes the release of endorphins, your body’s natural opioids which in turn decrease pain and create a “feel-good” sensation. Scientific studies have shown an increase of endorphins in the blood stream after acupuncture treatments. Another possible theory is that acupuncture affects your body’s stress response system, otherwise know as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This in turn could explain lower stress levels and decreased anxiety following acupuncture sessions.
Recent Scientific Studies Uncovering Acupuncture’s Effects
Modern research has demonstrated how acupuncture affects the body at multiple levels along with multiple systems in the body. Acupuncture has been shown to have effects on your nervous system, endocrine/hormonal system, immune system, digestive system and cardiovascular system. One of the most common uses of acupuncture is for pain relief, both acute and chronic. Skeptics of acupuncture may relate acupuncture’s pain relief effect to the placebo effect, but there are numerous controlled clinical trials that prove acupuncture works well beyond the placebo effect. “For example, the proportion of chronic pain relieved by acupuncture is generally in the range 55–85%, which compares favorably with that of potent drugs (morphine helps in 70% of cases) and far outweighs the placebo effect (30–35%).”1
In 2012, a review of studies was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that examined the effectiveness of acupuncture with treating chronic pain, including back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain. The researchers found that acupuncture gave significantly greater pain relief compared to a placebo.2
A study published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Acupuncture and Moxibustion revealed the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis. The researchers found significant reduction in pain and stiffness and increased function in people treated with acupuncture for knee osteoarthritis. They also showed an even greater success rate when combining acupuncture with Chinese massage, called Tui Na.
Chronic pain related with fibromyalgia may be very difficult to manage with medications, which can also lead to dependency and unwanted side-effects. In 2016, a study was published in Acupuncture Medicine showing that after 10 sessions of acupuncture, there was a 41 percent decrease in pain, compared to 27 percent in the placebo group. Another interesting finding in this study was that one year after the acupuncture was performed, pain relief was still significantly decreased.3
A recent study that was published in Molecular Neurobiology in 2015 was able to demonstrate how acupuncture reduces pain and inflammation.4 Researchers in this study demonstrated how manual acupuncture stimulation up-regulated certain anti-inflammatory cells (M2 macrophages) and down-regulated certain pro-inflammatory cells (M1 macrophages). This effect in turn reduced pain and inflammation in the test subjects.
Acupuncture and Your Pet
Acupuncture is also used in veterinary practices with both large and small animals. Various conditions in animals are treated with acupuncture including arthritis, musculoskeletal problems, gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea and colic, skin conditions including allergic dermatitis, respiratory conditions including asthma, and selected reproductive problems.
Trying to explain and understand acupuncture and Eastern medical philosophy in a Western medical society can be like trying to put the proverbial square peg into a round hole. Although at this time Western-based science is not fully able to explain and understand how acupuncture works, current research clearly supports the fact that acupuncture can be used as an effective technique not only for pain relief, but to promote overall health and well-being beyond the placebo effect.
1. World Health Organization, Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials, 2003
2. Annals of Internal Medicine 2004 Dec 21;141(12):901-10