As a seasoned acupuncturist, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of acupuncture. It’s a practice shrouded in ancient wisdom, yet it’s increasingly capturing the attention of modern science. Today, I’d like to delve into the intricacies of this healing modality, focusing on the fundamental question: How does acupuncture work?


The Foundations of Acupuncture


Before we delve into the scientific mechanisms behind acupuncture, let’s first lay the groundwork by understanding its foundational principles. Acupuncture is a cornerstone of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a holistic health system that has been practiced for over 2000 years. In TCM, health is seen as a balance of two opposing and complementary forces: Yin and Yang. When these forces are in balance, the body’s vital energy, or “Qi” (pronounced “chee”), flows freely through pathways known as meridians.

According to TCM, illness occurs when this Qi is blocked or imbalanced. Acupuncture is used to restore the free flow of Qi, thereby promoting health and wellbeing. This is achieved by inserting thin needles into specific points (acupoints) along these meridians.


The Science of Qi and Meridians


The concepts of Qi and meridians might seem elusive from a Western perspective, but recent research offers intriguing insights that bridge the gap between these ancient concepts and our current scientific understanding.


Research suggests that acupoints often correspond to areas where there’s a high density of nerves, blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels. When an acupuncture needle is inserted into these points, it stimulates the peripheral nervous system. This stimulation sends signals to the brain, leading to a variety of physiological responses.


The Neurological Mechanisms of Acupuncture


One of the most well-researched explanations for acupuncture’s effectiveness involves the nervous system. Acupuncture stimulates the body’s natural painkillers, known as endorphins. When the needle pierces the skin, it triggers a pain signal that travels to the spinal cord. In response, the body releases endorphins which help to alleviate pain and induce a sense of relaxation.


Further to this, acupuncture is believed to influence the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls unconscious bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. Acupuncture may stimulate the parasympathetic branch of the ANS, which helps to promote relaxation and healing.




Acupuncture and Neurotransmitters


Acupuncture can also affect the levels of various neurotransmitters in the brain. For instance, acupuncture is thought to influence serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that’s involved in mood regulation. This may explain why acupuncture is often used as a complementary treatment for mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.


The Immune Response and Acupuncture


Beyond the nervous system, acupuncture also appears to interact with the immune system. Studies have shown that acupuncture can stimulate immune response, enhancing the body’s ability to fend off diseases. Some research even suggests that acupuncture can modulate inflammation by influencing the release of certain pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines.


Acupuncture: A Multifaceted Healing Modality


In essence, acupuncture operates on multiple levels, impacting various bodily systems. It’s a complex and multifaceted healing modality that combines the wisdom of ancient traditions with the findings of modern science. While our understanding of acupuncture continues to evolve, one thing remains clear: this ancient practice holds significant potential for promoting health and wellbeing.


While acupuncture is generally considered safe, it’s important to remember that it should be performed by a trained professional. Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new treatment.


In conclusion, the science behind acupuncture involves an intricate interplay between our nervous system, immune system, and various neurotransmitters.


Recent research led by neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School has helped elucidate the underlying neuroanatomy of acupuncture. They’ve found that acupuncture activates a specific signaling pathway, triggering an anti-inflammatory response. Interestingly, this effect seems to be region-specific, with certain neurons being necessary for this response. These neurons are found in greater numbers in the hindlimb region, explaining why acupuncture is more effective in this area compared to others like the abdomen​1​​2​​3​​4​​5​.


In another study, researchers reported that electroacupuncture (a modern version of traditional acupuncture that uses electrical stimulation) can reduce cytokine storm – an overactive immune response that can cause excessive inflammation – by activating the vagal-adrenal axis. This is a pathway where the vagus nerve signals the adrenal glands to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that has various functions, including acting as a natural painkiller​6​.


The research team discovered a stronger response to electroacupuncture in the anterior muscles of the hindlimb, which had a higher concentration of the necessary neurons. This provides the “first concrete, neuroanatomic explanation for acupoint selectivity and specificity,” shedding light on where and how to apply the acupuncture needles for maximum effectiveness​7​.


While this research was conducted on mice, it’s likely that the basic organization of neurons is similar in humans. Future clinical trials in humans are needed to verify these findings and further explore the potential of acupuncture in treating conditions that cause excessive inflammation, such as COVID-19​8​.


In closing, the science of acupuncture is a rapidly expanding field, with new research findings continually enhancing our understanding of this ancient healing practice. As an acupuncturist, it’s an exciting time to be part of this ever-evolving discipline, where the wisdom of the past meets the scientific discoveries of the present. To experience the benefits of acupuncture for yourself, consider making an appointment with a qualified practitioner today.


Dr. Cecilia Rusnak MA, AP, D.O.M
1107 Person Street
Kissimmee, FL 34741
407-624-5258 Clinic
407-289-4047 Fax

Unraveling The Science Behind Acupuncture: An Acupuncturist's Perspective