One of the most common questions I am asked, probably several times a week, is “How does acupuncture work?” or “What does acupuncture do?” or “Do the needles have medicine on them?” or something along that line. Since a large percentage of my first-time patients have never had acupuncture before, this is a reasonable question.
As I’ve explained to many patients, acupuncture needles are not dipped in any special medicine; no frog saliva or gila monster venom. They are just plain stainless steel. The medicine is YOU. Acupuncture facilitates your body’s ability to heal itself.
There is a very good book written by one of my teachers, Donald Kendall, called The Dao of Chinese Medicine. For more detail than you can possibly digest in one sitting (I know that I can’t), this book will explain all that you may want to know about the physiology of needling therapy. Since I usually have only a couple minutes to answer my patient’s deceptively simple question, I have distilled my explanation into three bullet points:
1) Acupuncture stimulates your spinal cord to release more of your body’s own painkillers, called endorphins, into your bloodstream. This is why acupuncture can have fairly rapid pain killing effects. It is also why people often feel more relaxed or have an increased feeling of well-being after an acupuncture treatment. The pain killing effect of acupuncture will generally last up to 72 hours after a treatment, after which it will wear off as the increased endorphin levels clear your bloodstream. At the beginning of a course of acupuncture therapy, you will often be asked to come for a treatment two to three times a week, especially for pain complaints. This is because early on in the therapy you are primarily benefitting form the analgesic effects of acupuncture, which tends to be temporary.
2) Acupuncture helps to increase blood flow to the injured area. Increased blood flow brings more oxygen and nutrients, which your body needs to heal itself. This is an example where acupuncture facilitates your body’s own capacity to heal, and is responsible for the longer term pain relief that you eventually experience with continued acupuncture care.
3) Acupuncture normalizes your nervous system’s sympathetic/parasympathetic outflow. In plain language, it balances your body’s stress (sympathetic) and relaxation (parasympathetic) response. This is why acupuncture is effective for many internal medicine complaints. Stress is no small deal. It’s not just about being “stressed out”. Even the American Academy of Family Physicians acknowledges that up to 80% of complaints that family practice doctors see every day is stress-related, even chronic and serious conditions like cancer, high cholesterol and hypertension.
I have some patients who have previously experienced acupuncture from another provider, and they ask me, “How come you don’t talk about meridians and qi, or about liver stagnation like my other acupuncturist?” My answer is that I am lazy. Almost 70-80% of my patients are referred to my office by their medical doctors. I take the path of least resistance by explaining acupuncture in physiological terminology so that the patient will go back to the doctor and tell them about endorphin release and increased blood flow and normalizing autonomic nervous system function. They won’t tell the doctor about stagnation in the liver and energy blockages in the meridians. I won’t have to call the incredulous doctor and give them a lesson in Chinese medical terminology. Everyone is happy!
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the meridian explanation of acupuncture as long as I’m talking shop with my acupuncturist colleagues and everyone knows the secret trade language. With my patients and their doctors, however, I am happy communicating in the common medical language that people in this culture are already familiar with.