A Revisionist’s View on How Acupuncture Works

Based on patient feedback, I have learned that patients are generally interested in having a better understanding of what their practitioners are doing and why. And I think this is particularly applicable to acupuncture because it’s a collaborative process. And you should know more

By now, you might have heard about how acupuncture is a part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine, and it’s based on the principle of yin-yang balance, qi movement, etc. If you found this description to be somewhat esoteric and nebulous, don’t worry, you are not alone. I am ethnic Chinese, I speak the language, I know the culture, I am a trained professional in this field. And 90% of the time, I don’t know what they are talking about.

At least not specifically enough to be helpful in the clinic.

Well, since what we are really interested in understanding of what the needles do to your body and how your body reacts to the needles. Let’s just focus on that, everything else is just idle talk.

So here’s my take, and based on my own experience, it is the most practical and sensible explanation to what acupuncture works.

In general, when the needles go into your body, they pretty much are doing one of the two things: relax you or stimulate you. So for example, in stroke recovery, needles are inserted and manipulated to stimulate the nervous system to encourage new neural connections. For facial rejuvenation cases, the needles are used to stimulate the muscle tone to counter the effect of facial laxity.

However, in most clinic cases, we are aiming to relax the patients. So let’s focus on the relaxation aspect.

Within the realm of relaxation, the needles will relax both locally and systemically, and most of the time, there is a great overlap between local relaxation and systemic relaxation. For an effective clinic session, we have to focus on both.

By systemic relaxation, I am referring to the patient’s nervous system, namely by promoting parasympathetic nervous system. When the patients are mentally relaxed, they are much more present and their bodies and minds fight less. Also, when the mind is relaxed, the basal muscle tone is reduced… Just recall how different your body feels between sitting in an awful traffic and a tranquil beach… Putting the mind at ease is the requisite first step toward healing, and this is the systemic relaxation that I was referring to.

And by local, I mean the muscles of the needled point are relaxed. For example, you might have a sore achy tight spot on your body, and it’s pain when you palpate it. Like a trigger point for example. The direct needling of such a point relaxes the muscle and reduces the tension, just like how massage works. When that is achieved, the cause of the pain is also removed, and it no longer stimulate the nerve receptors to trigger the signals to your central nervous system, and that further enhances the systemic relaxation. Stress doesn’t kill you. It’s your cumulative residual stress responses that are killing you

Muscles are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to contract. When you are stressed, your mind triggers the necessary neurological and hormonal actions to get your body into a state that is appropriate for fight or flight. If you are constantly exposed to stressful stimulants, your mind and body have a hard time relaxing. Your mind is telling your body to gear up for fight or flight. And your constant state of high muscle tension also reminds the mind that the danger is not over yet. So a perpetual vicious circle ensues, even if the stressful stimulants have long passed. The stress has moved on, but the stress responses linger.

So, by being able to relax at both a systemic (nervous system) and local (muscular) level, acupuncture cuts the vicious circle. So if we can peek into your mind, like the movie Inside Out, we can probably see a laundry list that goes on forever… By using acupuncture to cut the psychosomatic vicious circle and reduce the noise coming into the CNS, we effectively reduce this lengthy laundry list for the patient. So metaphorically speaking, your body can focus its limited resources on fewer issues so it can heal better. And that’s what makes acupuncture a versatile modality. Since many pain syndromes we see in the clinic are directly associated to excessive muscle tension, by removing the muscle tension with acupuncture we eliminate the source of the pain. Also, it is important to recognize that pain is a subjective signal of stress, and when it’s well known that when a person is relaxed and centered, the sensation of pain is lessened. It doesn’t matter whether one tries to explain to explain the acupuncture mechanism through Traditional Chinese Medicine, it all essentially comes to down what is described herein.

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