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The Mechanism of Acupuncture

Acupuncture treatments carried out in hospitals and other health care facilities in the West today.

Western scientists have been trying to study the mechanism of acupuncture for years and have come up with several hypotheses.




One major hypothesis is that acupuncture works through neurohormonal pathways. Basically, you put the needle through specific points in the body and stimulate the nerve. The nerve actually sends signals to the brain, and the brain releases neural hormones such as beta-Endorphins. By doing that, the patient may feel euphoric, or happy, and this increases the pain threshold and they feel less pain.

Kylie Study, an acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner at Beaumont Hospital, agrees that current research shows that acupuncture excites the biochemical responses in the human body via the nerves. Acupuncture itself doesn’t directly release feel-good chemicals that can aid in inflammation, stress, and so forth, according to Study, but it works higher up the chain such as affecting the pituitary gland to produce the extra hormones.

Another hypothesis is that acupuncture works by reducing pro-inflammatory markers, or proteins, in the body. Some animal and human studies suggest that by doing acupuncture, you can significantly decrease these pro-inflammatory markers — including TNF and IL-1β — which decreases inflammation and reduces pain, . One such spot is just below the knee (known as stomach 36), according to Study. This point is used in a wide variety of treatments that involve inflammation anywhere in the body, as well as for increasing energy and the immune system, which in turn also help to decrease inflammation. 

Yet another hypothesis applies specifically to how acupuncture can be used to treat nerve damage, such as chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, a condition that often causes numbness or weakness in the feet and hands. “The idea is that by putting the needle in, you stimulate the brain to secrete some nerve growth factor, and then that helps the nerve to regenerate.

Acupuncture is also commonly used in conjunction with other fertility treatments. Study said that acupuncture actually increases the effectiveness of many common drugs that are taken to increase fertility by naturally increasing the hormone levels that travel to the ovaries. There has been increased research on women who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), for example, and who have difficulties getting pregnant due to the syndrome. A summary of several articles between 2006 and 2014 on this topic by HealthCMI found that acupuncture can help balance out hormones, such as lowering testosterone levels and regulating ovulation, all of which lead to as much as a 33 percent increased chance of a successful pregnancy.

A study published in 2017 by Sean Grand, et al., is using acupuncture to help treat people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study found that acupuncture might help with some side effects of PTSD, such as depression, especially when treated soon after diagnosis. The researchers do recommend that even though the research is promising, it is relatively new, and much more research is still needed before promoting acupuncture as one of the treatments for those with PTSD.

A 2017 paper by researchers in Germany and Switzerland studied the effects of acupuncture on patients with allergic asthma. The researchers showed through a large, randomized trial that acupuncture added to the patient’s routine did significantly improve asthma symptoms within the three-month trial period. One limitation to the study, however, was that patients and practitioners weren’t blinded to the study so there may be an element of bias in the results. 

Ms. Ting Wang

  • Member of British Acupuncture Council (BAcC)
  • Clinician in Neurology department, Heilongjiang University of TCM Hospital
  • MSc. in Chinese Medicine (Acupuncture), London South Bank University
  • BSc. in Clinical Discipline of Chinese and Western Integrative, Heilongjiang University of TCM


What you should know?

Acupuncture rarely ‘hurts‘. The most that people experience is a dull ache around the base of the inserted needle, or a slight tingling feeling when the needle is inserted. Points at the extremities, like toe or finger ends, can sometimes be a little sharp, but the sensation is usually brief.

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