You may have heard that acupuncture is great for relieving stress, pain, sleep issues, digestive disorders, breathing problems, headaches, fertility concerns, and so on … but do you know how it actually does all these things? Well, the answer is both complicated and simple. Confused yet? Keep reading.
Remember that acupuncture (a modality of Traditional Chinese Medicine, aka TCM) is not based on scientific, but rather clinical evidence. That is to say, 5000 years ago when people first started figuring out what worked and what did not when they pressed certain points, there were no fancy machines to measure current, blood flow, and so on. What worked … worked … and since science did not yet exist anyway, it did not matter why it worked. So people just kept doing what worked and never worried about a scientific explanation. They explained theories of medicine that helped them explain to each other what was happening, but none of this was based on science. It was based on theories that were based on clinical evidence, and since people kept getting positive results, over generations of use, no one thought anything of it. Then nearly 5000 years later, along came science.
Since we've all grown up with science, we expect it to explain everything for us. In this age of information, we constantly hear about tests and studies that seem to prove or disprove one thing or another. Sometimes (surely in another 5000 years!) Science will explain most things to us, one of which will likely be acupuncture. But where are we so far? Well, science has so far derived that the element Qi (defined most closely as 'energy') can not be measured quantitatively. That is, there is evidence subjectively that Qi exists (it can be felt), but there has not yet been a study that can measure Qi. Since Qi is a very important part of TCM, this presents a problem. Nonetheless, enough scientific studies have been done to show evidence that acupuncture does something, even if we can not yet measure Qi.
So what happens when you poke someone with an acupuncture needle? (More correctly, it's actually the combination of the right points that has the most dramatic effect of most of the time, but a single point can still activate some things.) Well, neuroimaging studies have shown that acupuncture can relax certain areas of the brain responsible for pain reception. Ultrasound show that acupuncture improves blood flow. And thermal imaging shows that acupuncture reduces infections where needed. Beyond this, many acupuncture meridians (pathways of energy) correspond to nerve pathways or arteries. Some of the major points, like one in your hand, sit where a few different nerves and blood vessels pass by. So although many are still skeptical about acupuncture, the evidence is growing in its favor, and more than likely science will 'catch up'. Since acupuncture can help in so many ways, let's just hope it does not take 5000 years.