How Does Acupuncture Work?
If you have never had Acupuncture, you are in for an amazing and yet common sense experience. Almost everyone who has tried acupuncture recommends it as an effective therapy to their friends and family. In this article I am going to shed some light on the provable medical benefits of acupuncture and some less scientific ideas that have come from hundreds of years of poor translations between two very different languages.
There is a “belief” that acupuncture works by stimulating the bodies vital energy (Qi) that flows along a network of meridians. This belief is true on some very subtle levels which I will explore in the article Does Qi Really Exist?. But, for the most part this belief is too simple, too literal and actually makes acupuncture look like a voodoo experiment. If Qi is actually a literal substance and meridians are invisible tubes that are interconnected throughout the whole body then it wouldn’t matter where the needles are inserted. In this way of thinking when “the” Qi is released or mobilized anywhere the benefit should felt everywhere. I am oversimplifying this on purpose because I feel that acupuncture is misunderstood in a way that makes it less credible and therefore, less accessible to millions of people.
I would like to share with you several very easy to understand and appreciate benefits from acupuncture that are proven scientifically. Each one has a measurable effect on physiology and when you add them all together you will see how acupuncture can benefit almost any condition in some way.
First, just the physical act of lying horizontally for 30 minutes in a relaxed state of mind is beneficial. When you relax all of your larger skeletal muscles and breath deeply a significant amount of your blood moves from your muscles back into the visceral space between your gut and your liver and kidneys. Blood volume is the limiting factor in many functions in your digestive system and immune system. The more blood around your gut the more your body can digest, absorb and metabolize your food. Also, 70% of your immune systems function occurs around your gut and 95% of your bodies neuropeptides are produced in your gut. Neuropeptides are molecules that allow you nervous system communicate with the rest of your body. Allowing your blood to have some quality time in your gut seems like a no brainer, or I should say better brainer thing to do. I would hazard a guess that if you lied down and consciously relaxed for 30 minutes a day you would significantly improve your health. Let’s say that weekly acupuncture or daily relaxation would improve your health at least 5%.
Second, the most recognized and researched benefit of acupuncture is the release of endorphins. Endorphins are hormones that your body secretes to induce deeper relaxation, better mood, deeper sleep and reduce the experience of pain. I sometimes warn my patients that they are going to stoned on their own opium, so be careful of stairs and people selling bridges. This influence of acupuncture has measurable benefits that can be felt for a few days after a treatment. In my experience this can improve your ability to heal about 20%. If we add the first benefit we should feeling 25% better with regular acupuncture sessions.
Third, when acupuncture is applied to muscles that are noticeably tight and sore the feeling of relaxation is much more tangible for you and your nervous system. When I talk to patients before a treatment I am always watching how they move and where their posture seems stiff. I often ask my patients to draw a little picture of their body and indicate where they experience the most soreness or emotional distress. That way, during the treatment, we both know that the needles are directly related to resolving tangible aspects of pain, distress and fatigue. I sometimes add needles that have a more energetic association, which allows room for something unexpected to happen. This kind of acupuncture, focusing on tangible sensations, makes a huge difference in a person’s experience of their body and their adaptability to life. I would estimate that this kind of influence, regularly accessed would improve a person’s vitality by another 15 %.
So far we are at an accumulated 40% improvement in healing capacity from an acupuncture treatment.
Fourth; when a person relaxes into an acupuncture treatment they often fall into a hypnogogic state. No, this doesn’t mean you can get hypnotized by your Acupuncturist. A hypnogogic state is the state that sometimes occurs just between being awake and being asleep. The biochemical and neuro-muscular changes that can occur in this state are astounding. I have seen people release years of pent up physical pain or emotional distress in the space of a few minutes. I have had people speak of visionary experiences that have brought great insight to their lives and others finally able to make decisions that have been lingering for years. It can be a very powerful experience. I would estimate that this kind of experience would improve a person’s capacity to heal by another 15%.
OK, now we are at a 55% better chance to heal. Sure, I am making the numbers up somewhat, but no one is researching these things in a definitive way.
Just one more.
Science, even at its most cynical, admits that there is something in some people who receive a positive response to placebo medications. This is often used to try and prove that some things are fake. I take the placebo effect another way. I call it the “what if?” effect. Some people seem to just say to themselves, “what if this can help me?”, and suddenly they have a 36% better chance at getting positive results.
So, what if acupuncture isn’t just about mysterious concepts that don’t translate into English very well? What if acupuncture is actually as scientific as it needs to be? What if you add up all of the potential benefits I have mentioned and notice acupuncture could have up to a 90% positive impact on how you feel in your body, how your immune system works and how resourceful you feel about your life.