Acupuncture is one of the world’s oldest forms of medicine. Its origins may have roots as far back as the Neolithic period. However, the first hard evidence is found around 200 BCE in The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon. This was at least 2,000 years before the creation of modern western medicine. In fact, just based on pure numbers, acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine on a whole have successfully treated more patients than western medicine and is the most successful form of healthcare in human history. However, this does not discount the effectiveness, or necessity of modern western medicine. In fact we believe that the combination of both western and eastern medicine is ideal for a balanced healthy life.
The effectiveness of acupuncture for certain conditions is undeniable. Conditions such as nausea, migraines, and specific pain related conditions. For conditions such as Fibromyalgia, Depression, and Insomnia, there is strong evidence, but it is on a case by case basis. Yet, despite the many clinical trials and research the largest hurdle for acupuncture is the traditional theory behind it.
It is believed, by traditional acupuncturists, that the mechanism behind acupuncture is qi, an energy that flows through the body, and pain and disease are caused by the blockage of qi. The use of acupuncture needles is to unblock qi and help the body balance itself. This idea of an unseen energy flowing through the body is difficult for those born in the modern western world to understand. Furthermore the theory itself may only be an explanation for a result that was not fully understood by ancient Chinese healers.
The effectiveness and popularity of acupuncture in the west has spurred scientific research to quantify and understand acupuncture. However, despite the research supporting the effectiveness of acupuncture, western scientists are still at a loss for why acupuncture works. As a result of this lack of understanding western scientist have created five theories for why acupuncture works.
- The gate control theory is based on electrical signals sent through the nervous system. Pain signals must pass through a number of gates when being transmitted from the injury location to the spinal cord and then the brain. Acupuncture generates competing stimulus and interrupts the neurotransmitters of pain signals from reaching the brain.
- The augmentation theory suggests that acupuncture raises the levels of triglycerides, specific hormones, prostaglandins, white blood cells, gamma globin and overall anti-body levels. The result is a stronger immune system.
- The endorphins theory suggests that acupuncture stimulates the secretion of endorphins into the body. These endorphins are can be one thousand times more powerful than morphine and can mask pain.
- The Neurotransmitter theory suggests that certain neurotransmitter levels such as serotonin and noradrenalin are affected by acupuncture. This is why acupuncture has seen such success in behavioral disorders such as depression and anxiety.
- The circulatory theory is one of the most widely accepted theories of acupuncture. In this theory acupuncture helps to dilate or constrict the blood vessels in specified areas of the body. Since blood is the transit system of the blood this results in increased white and red blood cells, the release of the body’s vasodilators and the removal of toxins. The end result is a faster healing process.
These five theories each addresses only one of the conditions that acupuncture has been found to successfully treat. Each theory varies greatly and each is constrained by the conditions it has been observed to treat. In all likely-hood it is a combination of each of these theories that is at work in acupuncture. Furthermore one of the greatest difficulties in researching and quantifying acupuncture is the individualistic nature of the treatment and results. So the question is not how acupuncture works, but whether or not it works for you.