How does acupuncture work, this question is again best answered by looking at the two predominant theories.
Traditional acupuncture has many different styles but all have the central theory that the body is covered in channels of Qi (pronounced chee). Qi translates as energy or life force that guides all of the bodies functions. There are twelve primary channels in the body which pass through the main organ systems. They are responsible for bodily functions. In health, the flow of Qi through these channels is smooth and seamless. In ill health there is a problem, either a blockage, a deficiency or some other disruption to the smooth flow. Acupuncture needles at certain points of the body can manipulate the flow of Qi, either nourishing and encouraging it or calming and sedating. In doing so, health is restored.
Scientific theory on the mechanism behind acupuncture is rich and varied. In summary it is believed to act on the central nervous system. Studies, predominantly focused on pain mechanisms, have noted changes in the release of certain neuropeptides and “significant modulatory effects at widespread cerebrocerebellar brain regions” (Bia, 2013).
How the two come together
In the face of the highly intelligent and frankly daunting language of science it is easy to feel that traditional theory has no place in modern acupuncture. In fact, the emergence of a scientific basis for acupuncture in my opinion places even more validity on traditional practises.
Firstly, we must remember that language behind traditional medicine is primitive. It was developed centuries before scientific knowledge and reflects observation on the human body and its interaction with variations in emotion, the environment and disease.
For example, if the weather was cold and people started to experience stiff joints the assumption was that the body had experienced an invasion of cold which disrupted the normal function of the body. We may find the concept difficult to equate but I’m sure we can grasp the sentiment behind it. Cold invasion in this context describes the nature of symptoms and offers a potential explanation for how the problem arises. The treatment may include warming the area. Setting aside the language, applying heat to joint pain remains a valid treatment across a range of medical disciplines. Much can be taken from the traditional theory of medicine if we take time to contextualise the language.
Secondly, we must also consider what scientific research has discovered. Medical Acupuncture is not a new invention, rather an investigation into an existing practise to explain if, why and how it works. The two practises may focus differently but much of the practise is similar. For example, whilst medical acupuncture is less specific about the choice of acupuncture point in comparison to traditional acupuncture many of its practitioners never the less use traditional acupuncture points because they assume they probably give the best stimulation of the nervous system (AIM, 2009). In other words, traditional acupuncturists may needle a point because it moves stagnation, medical acupuncturists may needle because it activates the central nervous system. Both are needling the point to treat pain.
Bai, L., & Lao, L. (2013). Neurobiological foundations of acupuncture: the relevance and future prospect based on neuroimaging evidence. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2013, 812568.
Western medical acupuncture: a definition Acupuncture in Medicine 2009;27:33-35.