The Traditional Chinese Medicine Explanation of Acupuncture: Let’s begin with the TCM explanation of Qi flow in acupuncture channels. Acupuncture, the insertion of tiny, hair-thin needles into acupuncture points on the body, stimulates your body’s Qi, which then sends signals to the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems telling them how to inhibit pain and/or resolve disease processes.
Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) is a Chinese word meaning life energy. By Qi, we refer to the energy we use to move our arms and legs, for our organs to perform their functions of breathing, pumping blood and digesting food and for our brains to think. Without Qi, the body is lifeless.
Like blood, lymph or nerves, qi flows in a vessel system, called acupuncture meridians or channels (the Chinese word for channel is ‘mai’ which literally translates as vessel). The channels begin at the ends of the fingers and toes, and travel up the limbs to the torso. In the torso they pass through the various organs, making connections with one another, and then continue on up to the head. We give each channel the name of one of the organs it passes through, such as Lung, Large Intestine, Heart, Small Intestine, Spleen, Stomach, Bladder, Kidney, Liver, and Gallbladder.
Along the channels are acupuncture points. These points are described as wells that reach the Qi in the channel below. By inserting a needle into the acupuncture point, the acupuncturist stimulates the Qi in the channel. The acupuncturist chooses points based on both function and location.
When stimulated, the point sends a signal to the brain to tell the immune system what to do to heal the body. The body has the ability for spontaneous healing. When we get injured, a headache, cold, flu, or even a bout of food poisoning, the immune system is able to resolve the condition with little or no outside intervention on our part. However, sometimes disease gets more complicated and involve other physiological processes. The body can’t handle it alone, and we seek outside intervention from a health care professional. Acupuncture needles stimulate Qi in acupuncture points that signal the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems to tell it what to do and affects this physiological processes.
Western Science Explains Acupuncture: Scientists have discovered acupuncture points are supplied by high concentrations of nerve endings and bundles, mast cells (used for immune function) lymphatics and capillaries. In addition, acupuncture points have a lower electrical resistance, compared with surrounding skin. Dry skin has a direct current (DC) resistance of about 200,000 to 2 million ohms. Resistance decreases to about 50,000 ohms at acupuncture points. Acupuncture points can be accurately located with acupuncture point-finders that measure ohms to determine point location. Acupuncture channels show up as a different color than surrounding tissue on photographs taken with infrared imaging.
Most of the western, scientific research attempting to discover or explain the mechanism of acupuncture has focused on pain relief. Nerve fibers travel from acupuncture points in the extremities to the spinal cord. Then, traveling through the spinal nerve column, they continue on to the brainstem and hypothalamus-pituitary gland. Stimulation of these areas in the brain and spinal cord cause the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin that cause inhibition of nerve pain fibers, effectively blocking the transmission of pain sensations.
B-endorphin is a natural opiate produced in the body, 10-100 times more potent than morphine. It circulates for several hours when released. Dynorphins are an extremely powerful opiate, 200 times stronger than morphine. Dynorphins are released in the spinal cord when electro-stimulation (e-stim) is applied to acupuncture points.
Animal studies have shown that acupuncture can alter the release of various hormones. The effect on hormone release might, in part, explain acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating gynecological and endocrine dysfunction from PMS and infertility to diabetes and thyroid dysfunction. The list goes on. Make an appointment to discuss your concerns and whether TCM is right for you.
One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions. As an example, In musculoskeletal conditions, such as fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, tennis elbow, or epicondylitis, carpal tunnel, and osteoarthritis are conditions for which acupuncture may be beneficial. These painful conditions are often treated with, among other things, anti-inflammatory medications (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) or with steroid injections. Both medical interventions have a potential for deleterious side effects but are still widely used and are considered acceptable treatments. The evidence supporting these therapies is no better and have worse side effects than acupuncture. This makes acupuncture essential in the treatments of acute or chronic pain and after trauma or surgical care.
In addition, ample clinical experience, supported by research data, suggests that acupuncture may be a reasonable option for many other clinical conditions. Positive clinical trials include addictions and the treatment of mood disorders via the neurotransmitter and endorphin theories. Acupuncture treatment for conditions of addiction or mood disorder should be part of a comprehensive management program. Dr. Weber has devoted time to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic for veterans and has worked closely with patients suffering with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and PTSD with good results.
The following are five prevailing theories posted by the western medical community, using scientific terminology, to explain acupuncture’s effectiveness with a few examples. These are based upon studies performed before and after acupuncture, using blood draws to measure biomedical changes in the body.
The Gate Control Theory: Pain signals must pass through a number of high traffic gates as they move from the area of injury upward through the spinal cord into the brain. Like a road or a highway, these nerves can only handle a limited number of nerve signals at one time. Acupuncture generates competing stimulus and effectively interrupts the neurotransmitters of the pain signals from reaching the brain. This results in the patient never getting the pain signal and therefore never getting the pain. This is the most popular theory among Western scientists.
The Augmentation Theory: Acupuncture raises levels of triglycerides, specific hormones, prostaglandins, white blood cells (WBC’s), gamma globulins, opsonins and overall anti-body levels. This is why acupuncture can treat disorders relating to immune deficiencies. Raising WBC’s can help every patient. According to research, more and more conditions are being linked with a weak immune system. Whether or not you are immune compromised, you always want your immune system as strong as possible and this is a positive bi-product of all acupuncture treatments.
The Endorphin Theory: Acupuncture stimulates the secretion of endorphins in the body (specifically Enkephalins). Endorphins are our bodies’ natural painkillers. They are 1000 times stronger than morphine.
The Neurotransmitter Theory: This states that certain neurotransmitter levels (such as Serotonin and Noradrenaline) are affected by Acupuncture. This is why acupuncture is so successful with depression, mood disorders and weight loss. Serotonin levels are affected by sugar intake and low Serotonin levels may cause cravings for sugar. This is why people feel so amazing after a treatment.
The Circulatory Theory: There is an effect of constricting or dilating of blood vessels, from doing acupuncture. A possible explanation of this is the release of the body’s vasodilators (such as Histamine), in response to acupuncture. Increasing circulation of fresh red blood cells (RBC’s) and WBC’s to an injured area helps to create a faster healing process. Acupuncture is very effective in treating edema by this concept of promoting dilation.
In all, oriental medicine is the oldest coded medical system. It has been used for centuries for primary care and is still being used in eastern medicine today. Oriental medicine’s acceptance into the western medical model, with more and more proven and researched clinical trials plus the support of the largest U.S health and safety branches, is allowing oriental medicine to become more available to the public. Check out the World Health Organization which has over a hundred indications that acupuncture has been proven to be beneficial for.