How does acupuncture work: Scientific Perspective

needle acupuncture

In a clinical setting we see all types of conditions respond from allergies and asthma to anxiety and depression to fertility and menstrual issues and, of course, pain among many others. So we know it “works”, but how is a gray area. Many studies have shown that acupuncture releases endorphins (our body’s natural morphine). A release of endorphins would help explain how acupuncture treats pain and also the extremely relaxed feeling most people have after an acupuncture treatment.

This alone, however, does not explain how it may help with depression or autoimmune conditions or fibroids as random examples.

Looking At Specific Effects: In recent years, researchers have begun looking at specific reactions from individual points. One study using a PET scan (shows brain activity) found measurable changes in the areas of the brain related to gastric control when ST 36 was needled. ST 36 is used for a broad range of issues such as: nearly all digestive issues (reflux, cramping, bloating, weak digestion, etc.), lower leg pain, asthma, fatigue, low immunity, and depression to name a few. This study shows that the point has a measurable effect on brain function which then stimulates the body to correct itself internally. While it shows an effect, it still does not show how it relieves symptoms? Studies like this would have to be repeated numerous times with people with varying conditions to see if acupuncture merely offers a “regulatory effect” or if it is a “fixed effect”.

trigger points

Regulatory vs. Fixed Effects: This relationship is an important one for understanding how acupuncture works. If you have bloating, for example, does acupuncture just send a signal of some kind and the body figures out how to stop the bloating, or does it send the same signal every time meaning the point may be better for some types of bloating than others – or only for bloating when you also have cramps?

In other words, does the body respond in a purely regulatory fashion with acupuncture – that is, if something (a chemical, hormone, etc.) is high, does it make it lower and vice versa – or does one point always make that chemical or hormone level higher and another point make it lower? These types of understandings will involve years of research but are explained well in Chinese Medical terms minus the a precise “how.”

Similar to the study above, another using a PET scan looked more generally at the effects of needling SP 6. SP 6 has a broad range of uses including digestive problems, prolapsed organs, sexual issues, skin disorders, insomnia and anxiety. This study found changes in 10 areas of the brain including the prefrontal cortex (social behavior, depression, anxiety) and the hippocampus (memory, stress, epilepsy, etc.). Generally the areas that were stimulated matched up with the broad range of effects the point has. Again, however, does it always effect those areas and how does that stimulation lead to a cessation of symptoms in a patient?

Five scientists weigh in

An entirely different study used both of those points but didn’t look at brain function mechanisms at all – instead they looked at knee pain. This study is an example of looking at “local needling” (vs. using a point for a systemic change like the studies above illustrate). The study found that needling (ST 36 and SP 6) led to increases in synovial fluid in the joint which aids arthritic knees. Did it do this by triggering a part of the brain to draw attention to the knee, or was it just because these rats (in this study) had arthritic knees – what would the effect be on someone with “perfect” knees? There are no clear answers yet to these types of questions.

So What Do These Studies Show? These types of studies show that acupuncture can and does stimulate the body’s natural functions to heal and regulate. At this time, however, only the vast theories of Chinese Medicine explain how best to accomplish this for a given set of symptoms. For practitioners that understand the complex set of theories underlying Chinese Medicine we see somewhat of an endless labyrinth with studies of this nature. From clinical experience we know that we may use a particular point to create a particular effect, but that same point will have a different effect when used with a related point, and yet another with a different point — and so on. In other words, there are a multitude of relationships that are accounted for through thousands of years of observation, use, and clinical research that are very difficult to study using western techniques and terminology.