But this won’t be quite the full picture of how acupuncture works, because practitioners also believe that our treatments are an exchange of energy, and that our intention during treatments is important. Further, our system of medicine encompasses many things that Western medicine does not fully understand or know how to describe. We believe the body is always striving for homeostasis and what we do with our needles and herbs is helping either remove obstructions or strengthening the body to move toward this state of balance.
But let’s put that to the side for now and focus on one main question. What happens when we insert a needle into an acupuncture point?
First, let’s explore just what an acupuncture point is. Acupuncture points are areas on the body where at certain depths we can access neurovascular nodes with a needle. These points, or nodes, usually have a lower electrical conductivity or impedance than surrounding tissue, which means they are more bio-active and their signals can travel unimpeded to areas of the body or brain and help us achieve the physiological effects we are looking for.
When a needle is inserted into an acupuncture point, it activates neural pathways. Pulses are then sent along these neural pathways to the spine and then to the opposite side of the brain. For instance, depending on the acupuncture point being activated, it may travel to the pituitary gland which then stimulates endorphins to be released into the bloodstream. Or, a signal may travel to the thalamus, a part of the brain important in modulating normal and neuropathic pain conditions, which will help decrease pain.
Where needles are placed in the body, the cardiovascular system is also accessed. More blood flow is stimulated to the site of the needle. With more blood flow, there are more nutrients into the tissues in the area as well as movement of cellular waste byproducts out of the area. Tissues begin to function better, and the body as a whole begins to feel better.
As an example, when acupuncture is used to help treat fertility, blood flow to the ovaries is increased and improved. We will then have follicles which grow in a nutrient rich environment, which can increase their quality. And since we can also effect the neural pathways to the brain, we can have an effect on the hypothalamus and pituitary, the main hormone centers in the brain. The result is that with needles we are also able to help balance hormones.
For pain issues, acupuncture canbe helpful in many different ways. It brings more blood flow to a site which helps tissues heal more quickly, helps decrease inflammation, and stimulates the release of our body’s internal ‘feel good’ chemicals, endorphins. Some nerves may over-fire or under-fire, causing muscles to feel chronically tight and painful. Acupuncture can help retrain these nerves to function better, either to cease over-firing or to help nerves conduct with less impedance, which helps pain areas to heal and resolve.
So, hopefully this gives a little more explanation about not only how acupuncture works, but also what issues acupuncture can treat. Because of acupuncture’s effect on the nervous, cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems, there are virtually no bounds to the issues it can be helpful with. Additionally, because acupuncture is working on healing what is going on at the root level, it is not always a quick Band-aid style of treatment. It can take time to affect the changes we are looking for, as it is a re-training of the endocrine system or the nervous system or the muscles, etc. But once these changes to how the body functions are made, then there is less need for outside treatments as the body is trained on keeping itself more towards a state of balance.
by Laurie Terzo, DAOM, L.Ac., FABORM