Two Thousand Years of  Evidence

canstockphoto16383597Acupuncture works. Two thousand years of empirical evidence and many modern studies attest to this. But why and how does it work? This is a question that I am asked all the time and there are two very different ways of explaining it.

I usually start with the Eastern perspective. Acupuncture is a very old treatment modality. We have textbooks still in use today that are over two thousand years old and there is evidence it was practiced for a very long time before this text was written.

Obviously, there were no microscopes, or lab tests, or even sophisticated autopsies (Chinese culture forbade the desecration of ancestor’s bodies) back then, so doctors and scholars projected what the internal workings of the body might be like by comparing them to what people experienced in the natural world.

Life-Giving River

Water is one of the essential requires for life. Springs, streams, rivers, canals and oceans were of great importance to the ancient Chinese just as they are to all people living today. The early scholars envisioned that the body had a similar system of moving, life-giving fluid. That fluid was called qi, and the pathways it flowed through were channels, or meridians (Dharmananda, 1996).

When all is going as it should, the flow of water through the natural environment and qi through the various channels of the body is smooth and unobstructed. If a tree or rock falls in the water, or there is a bigger event like a mudslide, the waterway may become obstructed.

In a person, the flow of a channel might be blocked by a fall or trauma, poor diet, emotional stress, or bad weather. When this happens, the body systems become disordered and symptoms result.

In nature, cutting a small opening or removing a branch can reopen the waterway and restore the normal flow. In the body, an acupuncture needle inserted into a blocked meridian will have a similar effect. Interestingly, many acupuncture points are named for water courses and natural features such as mountains, streams, seas, swamps, and ponds.

Although this approach sounds very simplistic, it is how acupuncture students are taught to approach the body and its many problems. Locate the blockages and disharmonies and needle the appropriate points on the appropriate meridians to restore the proper flow of qi. When the flow is restored, the body will eliminate most symptoms, and with proper lifestyle (diet, exercise, sleep, etc.) habits, will overcome most disease.

How Does Acupuncture Work – A Little Science

An acupuncture model - How acupuncture works

Fast-forward two thousand years to the research labs at our very own University of Vermont Medical School. Dr. Helene Langevin, who is a medical doctor also  trained as an acupuncturist, is studying the effects of acupuncture and other forms of stimulation on connective tissue and finding some interesting results. In essence, the winding and stretching that occurs when a needle is inserted begins to cause physiological changes in the connective tissue and appears to cause it to relax. Since connective tissue surrounds nerves, blood vessels, lymph vessels, organs, and muscles, relaxing the tension around these structures may cause changes in their function.

Nerve stimulation also appears to be involved. Langevin (The Scientist, 2013) explains, “since loose connective tissue houses blood vessels and nerves, suggesting that mechanical stimulation of connective tissue generated by needle manipulation could transmit a mechanical signal to sensory nerves, as well as intrinsic sensory afferents directly innervating connective tissue.”

And the planes of the connective tissue? They seem to correspond to the meridian paths, at least in the upper body. Different language, but remarkably similar to the idea of removing obstruction to improve the flow. Do you agree?

Although this research is in its infancy, it looks like after several millennia, we are finally beginning to understand how acupuncture works from a Western, scientific perspective.