According to ancient Chinese tradition, acupuncture works by rebalancing the yin and yang energies of the body and promoting the circulation of qi and blood.
Although these terms have been used to describe acupuncture for thousands of years, we now have a very different understanding of human biology.
Modern science has led many people to question the existence of substances such as yin, yang, and qi and look for more rational explanations of how acupuncture works.
So, what is the science behind acupuncture? Let’s take a look.
Unravelling the Mysteries of Acupuncture with Science
Although acupuncture has been around for centuries, we are only just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of understanding how it works scientifically.
In the past, it was accepted that acupuncture worked by restoring a state of balance to the body and mind. However, we now live in an age where many people would prefer to understand exactly what is going on inside their body when they go for a treatment.
Fortunately, research into how acupuncture works has given us many insights into this mysterious system of medicine. While we still do not understand everything, we are far closer than we were just a few decades ago.
So, without further ado, let’s explore the science behind acupuncture, or at least what we know about it so far.
What is the Science Behind Acupuncture?
There are several different biological mechanisms which can help us to understand how acupuncture works. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
Pain Gate Control Theory
One popular theory behind how acupuncture works is known as the ‘gate control theory’ of pain. This theory describes how pain signals can be prevented from reaching the brain by opening and closing certain ‘gates’ throughout the central nervous system.
The idea is that acupuncture can be used to stimulate inhibitory nerve cells, much in the same way as you would if you rubbed your elbow after banging it, for example. Although it is not 100% proven that acupuncture works through gate control, it seems likely that it plays a role.
What we do know is that acupuncture stimulates a range of different nerve fibers and changes the way that the brain perceives pain.
Release of Endorphins
Acupuncture is also known to trigger the release of endorphins. These chemicals are natural painkillers produced by our body and they work in a very similar way to morphine.
As well as relieving pain, endorphins bring about a sense of calm and general wellbeing. This is the most likely reason why some people report feeling ‘on a high’ after an acupuncture treatment!
Purinergic signalling is a term used to describe how the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP)is converted into adenosine outside of cells.
ATP exists inside cells as an important source of energy. When cells are damaged, for example, if you cut yourself with a knife or are pricked with a needle, ATP leaks out. When ATP escapes outside of cellsa chemical reaction converts it into another molecule called adenosine.
Adenosine signals to the nervous and immune systems that an injury has occurred. This triggers the healing process, kicks the immune system into action, and dulls any pain in the area.
Other Ways that Acupuncture Works
The above mechanisms describe the science behind how acupuncture works for pain, but how about other conditions?
Purinergic signaling is involved in many different biological processes and is thought to be part of the reason why acupuncture can help such a broad variety of problems. However, acupuncture is also believed to have the following effects:
- Relieving inflammation
- Improving circulation
- Regulating neurotransmitters and hormones
- Modulating the immune system
- Relieving stress
These varied effects go some way to explaining why acupuncture can be used to treat so many different health conditions. However, research is ongoing and there is no doubt that we still have a lot to learn!