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How does acupuncture work?


It's a common question I get from all my patients. For over 15 years, I've found acupuncture very effective for pain and injuries to the low back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee, elbow...you name it!


This ancient form of treatment can be explained in two ways...via Eastern philosophy or Western science.


I will try to make these explanations as simple as possible but realize there are some details and intricacies that will be left out.


Eastern philosophy


In Chinese medicine, there is a belief that there are 12 energy channels or meridians that carry the life force (Chi) of all living forms (ie. humans, animals, plants, etc) which allows them to flourish and grow.


By analogy, you can also think of meridians as rivers of energy that provide life-giving water to its surrounding areas...in humans, this revitalizing energy is distributed to the surrounding areas of our body.


Illness or injury in the body represents an imbalance or interruption in the natural flow of Chi through the body.  The blockage or interruption can be improved by accessing specific points along one or more of the meridians by inserting very fine, stainless steel needles to stimulate those points and channels.


Once the normal flow of Chi is restored, the body is able to natural heal and self-regulate again.  This allows the pain, inflammation, illness and related symptoms to resolve.


Western Medicine


In a way, the Western understanding of how acupuncture works can sound awfully similar except substituting various terminologies with things that are more familiar to us.


My personal training in Contemporary Medical Acupuncture via the Post-Graduate Department of Anaesthesia at McMaster University taught us to look at the mechanism of acupuncture via human anatomy and the nervous system and the circulatory system....nerves and blood.


Immediately, 'nerves and blood' should conjure up in your mind the image of pathways or channels of nerve tracts or blood vessels which exist throughout our body.


As we understand it, the nervous system is the master controlling system of all physiological functions in the body.


The circulatory system brings life-supporting oxygen and nutrients from our food to all tissues and organs in the body.


Interestingly enough, when we compare the map of traditional acupuncture points with a map of our nervous system and circulatory system from a medical anatomy textbook, there is an overwhelming overlap and similarity in these 'channels'.


So part of the explanation as to how acupuncture works from a Western point of view is that we are simply stimulating specific nerves and blood vessels in a way that enhances the communication of signals from the brain -> spinal cord -> peripheral nerve -> tissue or improves the supply of blood, oxygen and nutrients to affected tissues and drainage away from affected tissues.


The more complicated side of the Western explanation is that strategic needle insertions cause physiological stimulation of the nerves and blood vessels resulting in:

  • endorphin release which is your body's natural pain killer

  • inhibition of pain signals through the nerves to the pain-sensing part of your brain

  • hormone release which restores balance or homeostasis to any of the following systems: cardiovascular, endocrine, lymphatic, respiratory, reproductive, etc.

As I mentioned earlier, this is fairly simple description of both sides of the coin...It's up to you to decide which explanation most resonates with you!  It's possible that the Eastern explanation simply uses metaphorical terms of energy, Chi and channels to describe what they didn't know about the nervous and circulatory system thousands of years ago.  Or perhaps there really is some 'life-force' in us!


At the end of the acupuncture works well for many (but not necessarily all) people.  Western science has been able to explain how acupuncture works to a certain extent but there are still many unanswered questions regarding this 4000 year old form of treatment.


What is your experience with acupuncture?  How has it helped you?


Your friendly Richmond Hill chiropractor,


Dr. Keith


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