What is acupuncture and how does it actually work?

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a complementary therapy where fine needles are inserted into points that are located all over the body. These can be acupuncture points that have a specific function (benefit sleep, calm the mind, etc.) or these can be local points around an area of trauma or injury. This therapy has been around for thousands of years originating in Asia. We think of acupuncture as being primarily a Chinese medicine but there are also styles of acupuncture that originate from Japan and Korea.

Young woman getting acupuncture treatment


The concept of Qi

We can’t talk about acupuncture and not discuss the concept of Qi but what is Qi? There isn’t really an adequate translation in English but the common translation is ‘energy’ or ‘lifeforce’. This energy flows in channels (meridians) through the body between bones, muscles and tissues. When needles are inserted into acupuncture points the needle connects with a persons Qi and relieves blockages of Qi in the channels, bringing the person back into balance mentally, emotionally and physically.


What affects our Qi?

Qi can be blocked or disrupted by a number of factors. Local trauma, inflammation, chronic illness, stress, overwork, poor diet, exercising too much, not exercising enough, etc. There are a lot of factors that can affect our Qi and lead to illness but there are things that I see time and time again in the clinic:

  • Stress – stress can put our bodies into a permanent fight or flight mode which leads to us being constantly tense. Our posture can be particularly affected by this without us even noticing – our shoulders tense up till they’re up by the ears, our jaws clench and our hands ball into fists. This definitely doesn’t allow for the free movement of Qi in the channels.
  • Diet – our ancestors ate with the seasons, meaning they ate colder foods in the summer like fruit and they ate warmer and more readily available foods during the winter like root vegetables. Now it’s common to eat ice cream during the middle of winter when we’re already freezing! This stresses out our digestive system and affects our Spleen and Stomach Qi. For more information on Chinese dietary therapy check out Debra Betts’ website here.
  • Overwork – it’s not so much overwork in the physical sense as working too much without adequate rest. We are constantly being stimulated by computers, phones, tv, etc. Most of us cycle through apps on our phones all day every day – Facebook, Facebook messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, back to Facebook. This means that our brains are not getting the rest that they need to repair and recharge.  Couple that with excessive consumption of caffeine and this really overstimulates our adrenals (which are related to the Kidneys and Kidney Qi in Chinese medicine).


So that’s a little bit about acupuncture but how does it actually work?




The science behind acupuncture

Acupuncture works in a variety of ways. Firstly, it increases vasodilation which lowers blood pressure and leads to increased oxygen and blood flow. This carries vital nutrients around the body and to the areas that need it the most.

Secondly, the insertion of a needle creates a ‘micro trauma’. This sends a message to the brain that the body has been injured in some way and it needs to increase blood flow  to that area to begin healing the injury. Realistically, the ‘micro trauma’ is so minute that we wouldn’t even be able to see it but it signals the brain that something is wrong and that area needs some attention.

Acupuncture is a fantastic form of pain relief because when needles are inserted into certain points this sends a signal through the nervous system to the brain to tell it to start releasing various chemicals (endorphins, norepinephrine, enkephalin, etc.) that work as natural painkillers. Not only that, acupuncture also regulates neutrotransmitters to reduce the perception of chronic pain.


There is some debate about the method in which the brain receives the messages. The most popular theory currently is that when the needle is inserted the nerves underlying the points are stimulated. This signals the brain to release the hormones and chemicals discussed earlier.

However, some people argue that it’s the fascia instead that acts as a message highway and sends signals to the brain. Fascia spans the length of our body wrapping around each organ and appears to follow the channels that practitioners have been talking about for thousands of years. Some practitioners, such as professor Helene Langevin, believe that the dull aching sensation that people feel after the needle has been inserted is the fascia winding around the needle and being stimulated.


Whatever the mechanism of how the signals are received by the brain it is clear that the use of acupuncture promotes balance and good health by signalling the brain to release endorphins and chemicals to relieve stress and pain, help heal injuries, benefit sleep and more.


If you’re interested in how acupuncture can help you feel free to get in touch using the form below.




If you’re interested in finding out more about how acupuncture works see the articles linked below:

Neurobiological Mechanisms of Acupuncture for Some Common Illnesses: A Clinician’s Perspective

Evaluation of the Effects of Acupuncture on Blood Flow in Humans with Ultrasound Color Doppler Imaging

Neural acupuncture unit: a new concept for interpreting effects and mechanisms of acupuncture.

Acupuncture effect and central autonomic regulation 

Neural mechanism underlying acupuncture analgesia. 

Mechanical signaling through connective tissue: a mechanism for the therapeutic effect of acupuncture.

Relationship of acupuncture points and meridians to connective tissue planes.

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