What is acupuncture and how does it work?

This explanation of acupuncture will help answer the following questions: 

-What is acupuncture?
-What can acupuncture be used for?
-How does acupuncture actually work?
-How long does it take for acupuncture to work?


Acupuncture can be difficult to explain and the Chinese Medicine philosophy can get very complex. For this reason I won’t go into the explanation of the flow of Chi within the meridians. The Chinese Medicine philosophy does not have a direct scientific correlation to accompany it and I have found it is not the best way to communicate to others a satisfactory explanation of how acupuncture works.

Acupuncture is a healing treatment that has been utilized for thousands of years. Most sources say it is 2500 to 3000 years old while others say it goes back 5000 years or more.  Acupuncture’s origins are believed to be from the ancient Chinese culture.  They believed by stimulating certain points on the human body an acupuncturist could affect the Chi (energy/life force) within the human body. It was used for any ailment that could afflict a human being.  To this day it is used to treat a wide variety of pathological problems and symptoms.  The fact that it can be used for so many different problems creates the question: How can it possibly do this?

Other than going with the Chinese Medicine explanation of affecting the Chi or life force of the human body there is another very good scientific explanation of how it can affect so many different physiological processes in the human body. This explanation is the result of acupuncture research utilizing the cutting edge technology of the functional MRI also referred to as fMRI. The fMRI is used mostly for research purposes and not nearly as often for clinical purposes.  It is used exclusively to study the brain and is far more sensitive than the standard MRI. It gives an image of the brain and, due to its ultrasensitive technology, it detects the blood flow within the various regions of the brain.  When they do acupuncture research they put the human research subject into the fMRI and observe the individual’s brain activity before inserting the acupuncture needles. After these observations are documented they then insert the acupuncture needles into various locations on the body and then observe and document the changes in blood flow in various regions of the brain.  They find some areas of the brain get an increase in blood flow while other areas the blood flow is reduced.  The blood flow in the brain correlates to the activity level in that particular area of the brain. When blood flow increases the activity is increasing. When blood flow decreases the activity in that particular area is decreasing. The brain can be thought of as the central computer of the human body and is in control of all the physiological processes within the body. In seeing these changes in blood flow and activity levels in various parts of the brain this research indicates that acupuncture is altering brain function and therefore the body as a whole. Every single process involved in any and all systems of the body are affected by specific brain activity.


In simpler terms the explanation of how acupuncture works for so many different ailments, symptoms, and physiological processes is by regulating brain activity. An example of this is pain and inflammation response of the human body.  Pain and inflammation accompany one another and the processes involving them seem very susceptible to overactivity in the human body. Icing an injury as soon as possible to reduce swelling is an attestation to this. Acupuncture is probably most recognized for reducing pain, both acute and chronic, and it can’t be denied that it does this. It is reducing the activity in the brain associated with the pain and inflammation response therefore reducing the severity of or resolving an overactive pain and inflammation response.

The question remains of how long it takes to bring about this regulation of abnormal or pathological physiological activity. The most straight forward answer is that within the process of 4 acupuncture visits the patient and I will usually know if the problem is something we can appease or resolve. The most common time period that the initial 4 visits will take place within is 3 weeks. Sometimes a patient will feel positive results almost immediately after the 1st visit, but most commonly a significant difference is felt from the 2nd and 3rd visits.  Acupuncture isn’t only used to resolve pain and or pathological processes but also for the promotion of wellness, relaxation, and stress relief. Since acupuncture has proven to facilitate a regulation of brain activity,  acupuncture is therefore promoting  homeostasis( physiological balance) within the body. Homeostasis is fundamentally  the foundation of preventative health and wellness


Mark Cahill is a Licensed and Nationally Board Certified Acupuncturist & Licensed Massage Therapist


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