How Does Acupuncture Work?


Acupuncture may affect your body in a number of different ways. Western medical research has provided a number of theories on how acupuncture may affect the body and produce positive and beneficial results. A few of these theories include:

  • Acupuncture improves circulation. Acupuncture improves blood flow and circulation throughout the body. Studies show that it can increase blood flow and vasodilation (through release of histamine). Blood carries important nutrients to different areas of the body, including oxygen, iron, hormones, painkillers, and nutrition from the food that we eat. Moreover, increased flow of red and white blood cells and natural anti-inflammatory agents in the blood to an injured area can help that area heal more quickly.
  • Natural pain killer release. Some studies suggest that acupuncture may help release the body’s natural painkillers—enkephalins, norepinephrine, and endorphins. These natural substances help you feel good.
  • Competing stimulus. On a neurological level, when you experience pain, your body must transmit a pain signal from nerves or neurons in the part of your body experiencing pain, to your spinal cord, and finally to your brain. These neural pathways can only process so much stimuli at once. If acupuncture provides a positive, competing stimulus, this theory suggests that it may then lessen the pain you experience.
  • Acupuncture resets muscles that are tight or weak. Acupuncturists often needle “motor points” on muscles. These are points where the electrical activity of a muscle is highest. By inserting a metal needle, which conducts electricity, into a “motor point,” acupuncture can cause the muscle to reset and go back to its natural length and strength.
  • Increasing immunity and overall wellness. Acupuncture may increase levels of white blood cells, certain hormones, antibodies, prostaglandins, and more. These substances can help a person fight off disease or illness, and may help strengthen the body and increase general health.
  • Neurotransmitter modulation. Acupuncture can affect the levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which help a person feel happy and stress-free. Release of another hormone, oxytocin, can stimulate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us rest and relax.

These theories are just some of the more common ideas of how acupuncture works. Ongoing research on acupuncture’s effects on the body can be found by searching medical databases, such as Pubmed. Also, the Society for Acupuncture Research publishes summaries of many new acupuncture research studies on its website. Feel free to check these resources out and search for research on whatever topics you’re interested in. Also, if you want to know what acupuncture can be used to treat, see:

What is Qi? (part 2)


Qi Flow

Acupuncturists believe that qi flows in channels. These channels run all over your body, from your head to your toes, down your arms, zigging and zagging, even entering the body and going through internal organs, skin, and muscle layers. There are many different kinds of channels. The most common channels we discuss are connected to body organs—these are called primary channels.

Most of the common acupuncture points we talk about are on primary channels. These channels are somehow directly connected to the primary organ they are named after. So for instance, Liver 3, a common point needled on the foot, is on the Liver channel, which at some point connects to the Liver organ. The Liver channel runs from your big toe, up the inside of your leg, through your Liver and chest, up through the throat, behind the eye, and finally emerges on top of the head. Qi flows through this channel all the time.

You can think of acupuncture channels as big rivers where qi flows. Acupuncturists can tap into this natural qi of your body by accessing it at points. Maybe think of points as ports or way stations along the river of a channel, where the river is more connected to other areas of the body, other channels, or where the current is strong and mutable. Points can open links to other channels, direct qi and blood to a certain area of the body, or just support the flow of qi and blood in a particular organ or channel pathway.

One of the problems that sometimes happens is that qi becomes stagnant. Acupuncturists call this qi stagnation, and it’s very common. Again, to use a river analogy, maybe something has created a dam, or the river is having trouble flowing through a rocky bed to get to the next river, or maybe too much water has evaporated and the river isn’t very strong anymore. All of these present possibilities in Chinese medicine, specifically, strong emotions can create stagnation, qi flow can become blocked when making the transition from one channel to the next, and if your body is depleted and you’ve lost a lot of qi and blood, you may need some help building qi and blood to help it flow smoothly again.

So How Do I Make Sure My Qi Flow is Strong and Not Stagnant?

There are many ways to keep your body strong and healthy, and you’re probably doing a lot of them already. Basic health practices, such as eating well, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep can really help your health. However, everyone has times when their health goes out of balance. Within yin there is always a little yang, and vice-versa, right? Acupuncturists can support you in a number of ways.

Frequently, we take a look at patient’s lifestyles and habits. Acupuncturists like to take a step back and look at the full picture of a person’s wellness. So we can talk to you about nutrition and diet, support healthy lifestyle choices, and even give you therapeutic exercises or Chinese massage to support muscular imbalances and weakness. Often we use needles and moxa to support your qi and blood flow in your body. Chinese herbs are also great for working internally. For instance, if you’ve been overworking or haven’t been taking care of your health, herbs are great at rebuilding and supporting your constitution and lifestyle.