In my practice, it’s common for patients to ask me how acupuncture works. My goal in this column is to demystify Chinese medicine a bit, and offer some clear explanations on how it functions.
Acupuncture is a time-tested medicine based on real anatomy and physiology of the human body, and not invisible or intangible energy. In my 12 years of clinical experience, I’ve come to realize that we are far more electrical in nature than I first imagined.
Chinese medicine describes qi energy flow that moves throughout the body to animate us. While this is true, it’s essentially the electrical energy that courses through our bodies. This electricity moves along pathways that Chinese medicine calls “meridians”. While this is also true, this electricity in our bodies moves through not just our larger nerves, but also throughout our systems by way of small sensory nerves and receptors, muscle fibres, and perhaps most notably, throughout our fascia.
Fascia is a band or sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen, that is very densely woven, covering and interpenetrating every muscle, bone, nerve, artery and vein, as well as all of our internal organs, including the heart, lungs, brain and spinal cord. The most interesting aspect of the fascial system is that it is not just a system of separate coverings. It is actually one continuous structure that exists from head to toe without interruption. When your acupuncturist gives you a treatment, they are able to influence the movement of this electrical current to positively affect your health and well-being.
Electricity is indeed everywhere in the human body, and even our cells are specialized to conduct electrical currents. The elements in our bodies, like sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium, have a specific electrical charge. Almost all of our cells can use these charged elements, called ions, to generate electricity.
Acupuncture treats one of the main causes of disease, which is blood stasis, or poor circulation. When there’s a problem with blood flow to any area of the body, that area cannot function properly, and the body won’t heal without restored blood flow. Acupuncture greatly improves the flow of circulation, re-establishing the movement of oxygen and nutrients to the site of injury and tissues of the body. Acupuncture causes your blood vessels to dilate, and increases circulation to specific areas of the body to relieve pain, improve organ function and offset the aging process.
Thirdly, acupuncture stimulates nerve signals to your brain, causing it to release endorphins, which are your body’s natural pain-relieving neurotransmitters. This strongly reduces pain, relaxes the nervous system and calms stress.
Another mechanism in which acupuncture works is by reducing pro-inflammatory markers, or proteins, in the body. Some animal and human studies suggest that by doing acupuncture, you can significantly decrease these pro-inflammatory markers, which decreases inflammation and reduces pain. One such spot is just below the knee (known as stomach 36), according to a study. This acupoint is used in a wide variety of treatments that involve inflammation anywhere in the body, as well as for increasing energy and the immune system, which in turn also helps to decrease inflammation.
Yet another aspect of acupuncture’s efficacy is specifically how acupuncture can be used to treat nerve damage, such as peripheral neuropathy, a condition that often causes numbness or weakness in the feet and hands. The idea is that by putting the needle in, you stimulate the brain to secrete some nerve growth factor, and then that helps the nerve to regenerate.
In summary, these are the ways that acupuncture stimulates the body’s natural ability to heal itself, and it’s an effective treatment for a wide variety of health problems, without side effects or the need to use pharmaceuticals.
Paul Gaucher (R.TCM.P) and his wife, Dove Sprout (R.TCM.P), co-own Creston Acupuncture and Natural Health Centre.