Skip to main content


The question of what is acupuncture? is easy to answer.
Acupuncture is a method of encouraging the body to promote natural healing and to improve functioning. This is done by inserting needles and applying heat or electrical stimulation at very precise acupuncture points. 1
Acupuncture has been used for over 2000 years in Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea, and others. It is a part of a system of primary health care that focuses on nourishing health instead of just eliminating symptoms.

Why Acupuncture

The next logical question is Why is acupuncture? or "Why would someone want to receive acupuncture?" The most direct answer is because it works! In 1997 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a consensus statement regarding acupuncture. They stated clearly:
The data in support of acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies. 2
Since 1997 more research has been done, and the literature has been reviewed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO released a report that listed the following:

Diseases, symptoms or conditions for which acupuncture has been proved through controlled trials to be an effective treatment:3
  • Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and / or chemotherapy
  • Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
  • Biliary colic
  • Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
  • Dysentery, acute bacillary
  • Dysmenorrhoea, primary
  • Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis gastrospasm)
  • Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
  • Headache
  • Hypertension, essential
  • Hypotension, primary
  • Induction of labour
  • Knee pain
  • Leukopenia
  • Low back pain
  • Malposition of fetus, correction of
  • Morning sickness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Neck pain
  • Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
  • Periarthritis of shoulder
  • Postoperative pain
  • Renal colic
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sciatica
  • Sprain
  • Stroke
  • Tennis elbow

There are many other conditions that respond very well to acupuncture, but for which the research simply has not caught up yet. As the 1997 NIH report notes, this is the same for accepted western medical interventions as well 2.
One primary reason to try acupuncture first is safety. In the same WHO report, they concluded that:
acupuncture treatment is safe if it is performed properly by a well-trained practitioner. Unlike many drugs, it is non-toxic, and adverse reactions are minimal. This is probably one of the chief reasons why acupuncture is so popular in the treatment of chronic pain 3

Nourishing Health

The most important reason to get acupuncture is to nourish your health by preventing disease and improving the function of all aspects of your being. While modern medicine starts to make strides in "preventative care", the doctors who practiced acupuncture thousands of years ago already knew the best way to treat disease was to prevent it.
In the old days the sages treated disease by preventing illness before it began, just as a good government or emperor was able to take the necessary steps to avert war. Treating an illness after it has begun is like suppressing revolt after it has broken out. If someone digs a well when thirsty, or forges weapons after becoming engaged in battle, one cannot help but ask: Are not these actions too late? 4
Regular acupuncture treatments can nip small problems in the bud so that they do not take root, fester, and become major illnesses. It can also gradually nourish health and improve the function of your body so that you achieve and maintain phenomenal health!

How does Acupuncture Work?

The more complex question is not "What is acupuncture?" or "Why get acupuncture?" but How does acupuncture achieve its results?
Honestly, I don't think anyone knows the complete answer to this question yet. We do understand several different mechanisms of acupuncture, but there are almost certainly mechanisms that we don't fully understand yet.
Some of the mechanisms for how acupuncture works that we do know about are:
  • Stimulates the release of endorphins to regulate pain
  • Fascial planes
  • Has systemic and complex effects on the central nervous system
  • Growth Control Theory of Acupuncture

Endorphin Acupuncture Theory

Endorphins are a specific type of chemical in the brain and central nervous system (CNS). The are part of a larger group of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. 5 Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow neurons, individual cells in the CNS, to communicate with one another. There are many different kinds of neurotransmitters and their interactions with neurons are very complex.
Endorphins are similar in structure to drugs like morphine, and bind to the same receptors in the CNS. Drugs like morphine, called opiates, were discovered before the existence of endorphins. Thus, the receptors are called "opiate receptors." When endorphins are released they have a similar pain killing effect to opiate drugs. Since they are naturally produced by the body, they are much safer than external drugs like morphine or codeine. The body has feedback loops and regulation systems that prevent endorphins from causing the side effects seen with opiate drugs.
It is very clear that acupuncture stimulates and regulates the release of endorphins in the CNS.
we have more evidence in favor of the acupuncture-endorphin hypothesis than we have for 95% of conventional medicine. 6

Meridians and Fascia

Fascia is:
A sheet of fibrous tissue that envelops the body beneath the skin; it also encloses muscles and groups of muscles and separates their several layers or groups. 7
Fascial is more electrically conductive than the surrounding tissue. This is because it is made up, mostly, of collagen. Collagen has electrical properties that help maintain our bodies structure. Further, stimulation of this connective tissue can cause electrical signals to be sent along the bands of fascia to other parts of the body 8. In fact a 2002 study found that:
80% correspondence between the sites of acupuncture points and the location of intermuscular or intramuscular connective tissue planes in postmortem tissue sections. 9
This helps explain why acupuncture can affect pain in areas of the body distant from where the needle is inserted. In acupuncture we call these "distal points" or "distal needling" and it is often times more effective than needling into the site of the pain. If meridians follow facial planes in the body, then using meridian therapy, one system of acupuncture, for pain is effective treatment with an understood mechanism.

Acupuncture and CNS

Both the acupuncture endorphin theory and the overlap of facial planes and acupuncture meridians focus on the treatment of pain. While this is the most common area of research, it is not the only condition effectively treated by acupuncture. Looking at the WHO list above, we see conditions like leukopenia and correction of mallposition of fetus. How can we begin to explain these results?
Functional MRI measures brain activity by assessing the blood flow in different parts of the brain. The technique is only a few decades old, but it has provided remarkable insight into acupuncture's effects on the brain. Acupuncture stimulates the limbic system in the brain. The Limbic system controls basic emotions. Thus, this could account for acupuncture's ability to treat depression and other psychological issues 11
the human brain is highly self-organized with regional networks to interconnect and interact. The increasing connectomics studies not only give us a better understanding of the human brain but also make a new approach of revealing the mechanism underlying acupuncture. 12.

Growth Control Theory of Acupuncture

Dr Charles Shang theorized that acupuncture points are growth control centers that appear during embryological development and remain in adulthood 10. Morphogens are signaling molecules that affect the growth of surrounding tissue. They are concentrated in growth control centers. It has been shown that needling acupuncture points releases morphogens 9. Dr Shang's theory is: the mechanism of acupuncture is an interaction of bio-electric fields and morphogens.
This theory is a tremendous step in understanding acupuncture for the 2 reasons:
  1. It addresses short comings of the other theories listed above 10.
  2. It makes specific predictions that have since been confirmed 10.
This theory describes acupuncture points
not as lines on an inert map of the body but as living bio-energetic nodes in the body, so primal and deep that it should be little surprise that we are only now re-discovering them with biomedical science 9.


No one of the above explanations, yet, explains all the effects of acupuncture that we see in clinic everyday. Each mechanism is part of the whole picture showing how acupuncture works When examined together, several things are clear:
  • Acupuncture has observable mechanisms that distinguish it from superstition or placebo
  • Acupuncture acts on several different systems of the body simultaneously
  • Modern bio-medicine corroborates much of classical acupuncture theory 


Acupuncture is safe and effective for the treatment of many conditions. Modern science and medicine is able to demonstrate several mechanisms by which acupuncture affects the human body to promote healing. There is a lot that we still don't know about how acupuncture works. As we move into the future of medicine and health, traditional therapies like acupuncture and herbalism will play an increasingly larger part in not only treating disease but nourishing health. Instead of eschewing modern science and technological advances, the science of acupuncture has embraced increasingly safer and more effective tools to effect phenomenal health.
  1. "Doctor, What's This Acupuncture All About?"
  2. National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference Statement November 3-5, 1997
  4. Ni, Maoshing. (1995). The Yellow Emperor's Classic Of Medicine: A New Translation of the Neijing Suwen with Commentary. Boston, MA and London, UK: Shambhala.
  5. Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters
  6. Acupuncture and the Raison D'Etre for Alternative Medicine Bruce Pomeranz, PhD
  7. Fascia
  8. Keown, Daniel. (2014). The Spark in the Machine: How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine. Philadelphia, PA and London, UK: Singing Dragon.
  9. Relationship of Acupuncture Points and Meridians to Connective Tissue Planes
  10. Prospective Tests on Biological Models of Acupuncture.
  11. Functional MRI evidence that acupuncture modulates the limbic system and subcortical gray structures of the human brain
  12. Connectomics: A New Direction in Research to Understand the Mechanism of Acupuncture


  1. Great Blog....Thanks for sharing the valuable information..Park Acupuncture belief is that when performed properly, Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine can stimulate the body’s natural healing mechanism to help you achieve your goal.
    Acupuncture in Ellicott City

  2. Great post!!Thanks for sharing it with us....really needed.Acupuncture is an effective form of medical treatment that has evolved into a complete holistic health care system. Practitioners of acupuncture and Chinese medicine have used this noninvasive treatment method to help millions of people become well and stay well.Acupuncture in Columbia MD


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Help Support Acupuncture and Integrative Health by April 1st

I'm asking for your help today. The short call to action is: comment in support of HHS-OS-2018-0027 (link below). The deadline to comment is April 1st and we need your positive comments, the more comments the better (one per person, please!).
The Details The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Pain Management Best Practices Task Force recently wrote a report entitled, Draft Report on Pain Management Best Practices: Updates, Gaps, Inconsistencies, and Recommendations, This report is open for public comment until Monday, April 1st, 2019. This report very strongly supports a multi-disciplinary approach to pain, It specifically includes acupuncture, and also:
including mind-body behavioral interventions, acupuncture and massage, osteopathic and chiropractic manipulation, meditative movement therapies (e.g., yoga, tai chi), and natural products, among others. It is important to note that the report does not discount the use of opioid completely, but recommends that th…

Acupuncture for Allergies

If you are like me then fall means seasonal allergies! Ever since I was a kid I've had allergies, though mine are usually worse in the spring It's estimated that more than 89 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies (Nathan et al., 2008). There are numerous over the counter and prescription medications available to treat the symptoms of allergies, but most all of them have some level of side effects. More people are suffering from allergies than in past years (Schmidt, 2016), so this might be the first year that you've experienced allergies. Sometimes moving to a different location, where there are different allergens in the air, can cause allergies to surface, or maybe you are like me and have had allergies most of your life. Either way, acupuncture might be the solution to your runny noes, itchy eyes, and generally feeling icky this time of year! Acupuncture has very mild to no side effects, so it may be an efficient alternative to medication to treat allergies. …

Acupuncture the Best Placebo Ever

Acupuncture has been practiced and refined for over one thousand years. Even so, one question still seems to get asked more than almost any other:
Is Acupuncture a placebo? Now the short answer is no. Of course, I expect better of you than to just take my word for it. I should be clear, that when I say "no, acupuncture is not a placebo" I mean it the same way physicians mean that "morphine is not a placebo." Even though some of the effect of morphine is due to placebo; this has been recognized since at least 1955 (Beecher, p. 1606). But hospitals and emergency departments aren't rushing to replace their morphine supplies with normal saline, nor should they!

For those that don't know, the placebo effect is an effect, usually positive, of treatment that cannot be attributed to the physical components or chemical action of the treatment. The common example given is that of a sugar pill having the same therapeutic effect as a drug. Even proven effective treat…