Acupuncture is pretty remarkable in that it positively affects so many different systems. We are likely only scratching the surface with our understanding of how acupuncture works from a western scientific explanation.
In Chinese Medicine, most pain is characterized by a blockage of qi and blood in the meridian system, and the mechanism for reducing pain is to unblock the channels to get qi and blood moving again.
If you are like me, however, you want to get to know the more detailed systems and measurable changes that happen in the body. Fortunately, acupuncture and its affects, especially when it comes to pain, have been thoroughly studied in many high quality scientific studies. There are so many ways acupuncture modulates pain, that we will break them down some of them, as explained in the British Journal of Anaesthesia (6) and other articles on the subject
Acupuncture promotes blood flow: Everything you need to heal is contained within your blood. Your organs, muscles, tendons, bones, your entire body, needs high quality access to oxygen, nutrients, hormones and a plethora of other vital substances to heal. Decrease in blood flow can cause serious damage, and increase in blood flow, especially microcirculation, can bring all the right substances to an area to allow it to heal.
Acupuncture releases the body’s own natural painkillers: There is strong support that acupuncture release the bodies natural opioids, Endorphins and enkephalins.
Acupuncture reduces stress: Our autonomic nervous system contributes to something like ‘polar opposite’ affect for our nervous system. You’ve likely heard of the phrase ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’. This is your autonomic nervous system broken up into your sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest, digest and heal). An easy way to understand this is, if you were being chased by a tiger, it’s not important to sleep, heal, digest, or reproduce at that time. Instead you need to stay away and run, go, go, go, resting will come later, healing will come later. Fortunately, most of us don’t come into contact with tigers very often, however, our stressful lives, work, relationships, politics, financial situations and so forth, simulate this reaction and we can often be caught up in a fight or flight mode, and so our body is not in rest and digest and heal mode very often. Acupuncture appears to be able to modulate the autonomic nervous system and bring it back into a rest, digest and heal mode.
Acupuncture stimulates the body’s own healing systems though local micro trauma: When the local pain areas are needled, a micro trauma occurs. This sends signals for the body to ‘pay attention’ to this area. As the body addresses the micro trauma, it addresses the tissue around it as well, thus healing past damaged tissue that has been causing a person pain.
Acupuncture resets the nervous system: Emerging studies are showing how acupuncture can help reset the nervous systems ability to address pain. There are two main types of nerves involved in a pain reaction, one that involves experiencing pain (nocioceptive) and the other that tells the body where the pain is (proprioceptive) and thus where to address healing. If these two nerves are firing correctly, the body should be able to know that it is injured and know where to address that injury and thus release pain killers and start the natural process of healing. Your body should be able to heal itself, however, this doesn’t always go according to plan. In chronic pain conditions your body is sending pain signals (nociocpetive) but not communicating correctly where the problem is (proprioceptive). Thus, you are in pain and your body isn’t able to react appropriately.
- Acupuncture in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomised trial. Lancet, July 2005.
- Acupuncture in Patients With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, February 2006.
- Acupuncture in patients with tension-type headache: randomised controlled trial. BMJ, August 2005.
- Acupuncture for Patients With Migraine: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA, May 2005.
- Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, October 2012.
- Survey of Adverse Events Following Acupuncture (SAFA): a prospective study of 32,000 consultations. Acupuncture in Medicine, December 2001.
- Safety of Acupuncture: Results of a Prospective Observational Study with 229,230 Patients and Introduction of a Medical Information and Consent Form. Complementary Medicine Research, April 2009.
- The safety of acupuncture during pregnancy: a systematic review. Acupuncture in Medicine, June 2014.
- Cost-effectiveness of adjunct non-pharmacological interventions for osteoarthritis of the knee. PLOS One, March 2017.
- Paradoxes in Acupuncture Research: Strategies for Moving Forward. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medcine, 2011.
- The Long-term Effect of Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis: A Randomized Clinical Trial.JAMA Internal Medicine, April 2017.