The “Magical” Methods of Acupuncture Explained
by Joe Egnot, R.Ac
Ever wonder how acupuncture actually works to stop pain? Maybe a friend has gushed to
you about all the benefits they’ve experienced from an acupuncture treatment, but their best explanation is that it’s just “magic”. Maybe you’ve experienced those benefits yourself but don’t have the sufficient words to describe them, or maybe you just need some
ammo for the next time a doubting friend challenges your assertions. Since us acupuncturists tend to
think and talk in the conceptual way that’s been unique to our discipline for millennia, I thought I’d lay out some insight in a basic Western science way that has habituated us to how we understand our bodies as North Americans.
The first thing we can look at in acupuncture is what is unique about the nature of the acupuncture points themselves. Acupuncture points possess a higher degree of conducting nerve fibers and vascularization than the areas surrounding them (3), meaning that these are particularly efficacious spots for signalling to the brain and the central nervous system. In the many research studies that have been done in the past five years alone, real acupuncture points are often compared to “fake” ones used as a control, and the real points consistently produce clinically significant positive results, often as high as 50% as compared to the control ones (2). Acupuncture points also tend to be rich in mast cells(3). Stimulating these cells releases chemicals that both aid the body’s immune response and produce an analgesic
Depending on the pathway, acupuncture works by either inhibiting or enabling. Through inhibition, one of the ways acupuncture works is on the nervous system’s glial cells, which send messages like pain sensations from one neuron to another along the pathway from the site of stimulation to the brain (4). For the enabling effect, acupuncture works in the opposite direction: starting in the brain to effect how the body responds. Specifically, it regulates the body’s descending pain control system by modifying signals from the higher brain going through the brainstem to the spinal cord to increase the analgesic effect. It does this by activating certain chemicals, which I’ll talk about next, but it specifically works on the system known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-amygdala axis: HPA for short. It’s
through these structures that the descending pain signal can be modified (4).
Interestingly, this same axis and its chemicals are being discovered to p