How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture stimulates the body’s ability to resist or overcome illnesses and conditions by correcting imbalances. Acupuncture also prompts the body to produce chemicals that decrease or eliminate painful sensations.

There are hundreds of acupuncture points (called acu-points) along the body’s 14 major meridians (energy-carrying channels). Sixteenth-century Chinese doctors used the term “Qi” (pronounced “chee”) to describe the energy that flows through meridians. The belief is that illness is caused by a disruption of Qi, which leads to an imbalance of energy. Acupuncture can correct this energy disruption.

There are many theories as to how acupuncture actually works. When acupuncture points are stimulated, it causes a dull ache or other sensations in the muscle. One theory holds that:

  • The stimulated muscle and sensory neurons send a message to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord);
  • This causes the release of endorphins (naturally produced pain killers) and other neurotransmitters (body chemicals that modify nerve impulses);
  • This, in turn, helps block the message of pain from being delivered to the brain (and has other regulatory effects as well).

Other experts believe that acupuncture works by transmitting signals via the fascia. Fascia is like a thin sheath that surrounds all of the body’s muscles. Some acupuncturists consider the meridians to represent myofascial chains, which helps explain why stimulating an acupuncture point in the lower leg can affect the back or other areas. Interestingly, research shows that acupuncture points have a lower electrical resistivity than surrounding areas. In a practical sense, the meridian system provides a navigable energetic map of the body for acupuncturists to locate and treat many conditions.

What happens during acupuncture treatment?

After your condition is discussed, the acupuncturist will examine you for reactive areas to determine which points to use. Acupuncture needles are sterile, pre-packaged, disposable, and hair-thin. The needles are placed at various depths, ranging from a fraction of an inch to two inches. After the needles are inserted and stimulated, they stay in place from a few minutes up to 20 minutes.

In a treatment series, the acupuncturist will use different combinations of points and different needling techniques. These combinations help stimulate new sources of healing as the patient’s response to treatment is observed.

You should wear loose-fitting clothing (gowns are provided), as you will have to partially disrobe in order to receive acupuncture. Exercise good hygiene, but don’t come heavily perfumed, as many patients have chemical sensitivities.

What does acupuncture feel like?

You may feel a slight prick when the needle is inserted, but it is much less than the prick you feel during an injection, since the needles are much thinner.

You may feel a heaviness, numbness, tingling, or mild soreness after the needles have been inserted. A feeling of deep heaviness or numbness, called “Deqi” (pronounced “duh chee”) means the treatment is working. The patient tells the acupuncturist “yes” when he or she feels this.

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