How does acupuncture work?

At Oak Point Health and Vitality Centre, our athletes and patients know they’ll get the results they seek and we know they’ll ask us: “How does acupuncture work?”

Let’s face it, sticking needles in someone to make them feel better can sound like there’s some kind of “magic” involved. Either that or maybe you just “think” you feel better? With this in mind, I’m happy to educate all our patients about acupuncture. Since this form of medicine has been around for thousands of years, we’ll begin with the “traditional” explanation.

Ancient Chinese physicians used esoteric, mystical, and nature-based descriptions to explain acupuncture for thousands of years. You might hear a traditionalist say: “We are trying to drain dampness” or “Clear Wind Heat from the body” or even “Your Qi is stagnated and we need to move it.” It took me years of grad school to understand and master the various diagnoses acupuncturists provide, so I’ll condense it now into basic terms: Qi, the energy force required for all processes to occur in the body and keep it healthy, can get blocked in certain areas. When this occurs, pain and disease may arise. By inserting needles at specific locations, acupuncturists are able to release or move the Qi and restore proper flow and improve overall health.

A more modern interpretation holds that acupuncture involves five basic mechanisms that create a healing response and thus make patients feel and move better while encouraging their body to heal itself.

Five Mechanisms of Acupuncture:

  1. Local effects. When we insert a needle into the skin, we stimulate the nerves in that region causing blood vessels around the area to dilate. This, in turn, increases fresh blood and oxygen flow to the injured tissues making it more possible for the body to start healing and repairing itself (as it was designed to do).
  2. Spinal/segmental. Each muscle, ligament, organ, etc. has a connection to the spinal cord. So, for example, when we stimulate the muscles around the knee, the needle sends a signal to the part of the spine to which those tissues are connected. This stimuli causes the blocking of pain signals, explaining why patients feel less or perhaps no pain after a treatment.
  3. Extrasegmental analgesia. The signals I just described in mechanism #2 travel from a specific area of the spine to the brainstem, prompting the body to suppress pain not just to the tissues in which we’ve placed needles, but everywhere! This explains why an acupuncturist will sometimes place needles far from the area of pain complaint.
  4. Central regulatory. This involves signals traveling through the spine to the deeper parts of the brain to cause a regulating effect to the patient’s body and improve their wellbeing. These parts of the brain help regulate the autonomic nervous system, various hormones, and more—helping patients with internal medical conditions and autoimmune diseases.
  5. Trigger points. We’ve all felt a muscle knot. But did you know that such knots can cause a referred pain pattern to other parts of the body causing headaches and worse? Acupuncture helps deactivate these knots—called trigger points—and eliminate any referred pain pattern.

As you can now see, acupuncture works by stimulating the nervous system and encouraging the body to heal itself. It is an ideal method to be used as a stand-alone treatment or along with other Western medical interventions. For more info, feel free to contact us and schedule a complimentary consultation now!


Written by Dimitri Boules LAc, LMT, CPE, CPT