Acupuncture works based on a theory of energy in the body, which the Chinese call “Qi” [CHEE]. This energy moves around the body along specific pathways, called “meridians.” The meridians are like an electrical grid that connect the organs and tissues of the body together into a synergistic whole.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), all of the organs and tissues of the body depend upon Qi flowing through these meridians in a strong and balanced way. Sickness, pain, and disease are considered the result of a weakness, stagnation, or imbalance in the flow of Qi through the meridians. Acupuncture corrects this imbalance, unblocks the flow of Qi, and helps to strengthen the Qi flowing through your body in order to resolve disease and establish lasting and vibrant health.
To accomplish the restoration and balance of Qi, acupuncturists place ultra-thin needles at very precise locations along the meridians. These locations are called “acupuncture points.” The acupuncture points are like little hot-spots of communication and energy. Each of them sends a different signal to the body when stimulated. An acupuncturist knows the location and function of hundreds of acupuncture points on the body, and they will carefully select and stimulate the right ones in order to restore the balance of Qi. They will always select acupuncture points based on their patient’s unique pattern of symptoms and underlying disharmonies.
From a more conventional point of view, acupuncture works by:
1) Releasing tension and pain in your muscles.
2) Stimulating the body to heal itself.
3) Reminding the body of what normal is again — like hitting the reset button.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these methods.
Releasing Tension & Pain in the Muscles
When you are in pain, often the source of that pain is in the muscles of the body. Muscles protect your bones and organs by seizing up and becoming rigid. Muscles are good at seizing up, but terrible at letting go. A tight muscle can become so rigid that it restricts blood-flow and impinges nerve conductivity. This causes pain and sometimes numbness. However, when you put a needle into a muscle that has seized up, the muscle tries to let go on its own. Muscles move a lot — they don’t want to squeeze a needle, because that would cause them injury. Imagine if you got shot in the leg with an arrow — you wouldn’t want to get up and go for a walk, right? You’d want to sit and relax that leg, not tighten it at all. The same is true for your muscles when the needle is inserted. They will sometimes immediately let go, and the patient feels a sudden twitch. That’s an excellent result, and the pain will be relieved very quickly.
What’s beautiful about this approach is that it fundamentally changes the muscle memory itself. Sometimes muscles remain tight long after the original trauma or injury that caused them to seize up has passed. Muscles tend to get stuck in trauma-mode, and if you try to force them to release, sometimes they resist. Not so with acupuncture. When the needle is inserted, the muscle now wants protect itself by letting go. In this way, acupuncture re-conditions stuck muscles into a new pattern of relaxation.
However, if the muscles have been stuck for a very long time, they become unhealthy and sometimes cannot let go quickly. They’re really stuck, and they may even be wrapped up in adhesions and scar tissue, which is what we call a “knot.” In these cases, multiple acupuncture sessions may be required. Each time you put in a needle, the body gets to work healing itself, and the health of the muscle improves, until it finally releases. This means the Qi can flow properly again, and your pain goes away.
Stimulating the Body to Heal Itself
When a needle is inserted anywhere in the body, the body has a little freak-out. It turns out we humans have an inherent fear of being stuck by pointed objects. In the natural world, anything that sticks you presents a real problem for the body — maybe it’s something poisonous, or something that could cause bleeding, disease, or infection. So when we put an acupuncture needle in the body, your immune system doesn’t realize it’s a sterile, surgical grade, stainless steel needle that will only be in your body for 30 minutes. Instead, it assumes the worst, and it gets to work attempting to protect and heal the area of insertion.
This healing response is quite extraordinary — there’s a huge rush of blood, a dramatic release of immune agents, and a cascade of up and down regulating, stress-relieving hormonal responses that happen at the site of the needle insertion. However, when we insert a needle into specific acupuncture points on the body, we find that the healing response is far greater in it’s impact and reach. Instead of just a local effect at the site of the needle insertion, we see the entire brain, nervous, and endocrine system become activated, and a we see changes that allow the body to better cope with stress and healing across the board.
In this way, acupuncture kind of tricks the body into beginning a powerful healing process. This is important because sometimes we see the body lose track of its own natural state of balance, or what is also called “homeostasis.”
Reminding the Body of What Normal Looks Like Again
Acupuncture not only helps the muscles to reset and helps the body to heal itself, but it also reminds the body of what its “default settings” are like. We see this “system reset” occur across many systems of the body, especially with the brain and nervous system, but also in the endocrine, cardiovascular, digestive, and immune systems. When your body experiences stress, your brain can get stuck in a negative feedback cycle. The limbic system — the part of your brain that constantly asks “am I safe?” — has a hard time relating to the possibility that whatever was stressing you in the past is now really in the past. Instead, it signals the body that life is stressful, that we should be in a semi-permanent state of “fight-or-flight.” And as we experience life from this heightened state of reactivity, we become more stressed — which just reinforces our internal stress response.
Stress leads to high blood pressure, inflammation in the vascular system and brain, damage to our digestive lining, stomach aches, chest pain and palpitations, asthma and allergic sensitivity, insomnia, a weakened immune system, headaches, irregular menstrual cycles, infertility… and the list goes on and on. When we can stop the negative stress cycle, we can reduce and even reverse a long list of ailments all at once. Acupuncture can be a tremendously helpful tool to help alleviate stress. It has been shown to dramatically reduce stress hormones in the body, to calm the limbic “fight-or flight” system, and reduce inflammation system-wide.
Thus, in these three important ways — by releasing pain and tightness in the muscles, by stimulating a local and systemic healing response, and by reminding the body of what normal feels like a again — we can see a how powerful and positive acupuncture can be to restore our bodies to health.