How does Acupuncture work?

In an attempt to explain the profound effects of acupuncture, various scientific theories have been brought to light. Some of the leading theories are the Gate Control Theory, Endorphin Theory, and Autonomic Nervous System Theory.
The Gate Control Theory is based on the idea that the nerve fibers which transmit pain signals to the brain, run through the same ‘gate mechanism’ as the nerve fibers that inhibit pain perception. Thus, it is possible to interferer with the transmission of pain signals to the brain, by stimulating the periphery of the pain site. In effect, the pain signal is overridden by the signals being transmitted from the insertion of the acupuncture needles. The brain is then unable to identify that there is any pain present. This theory is unable to explain why or how pain relief continues once the needles stimulation has ended.

 The Endorphin Theory states that naturally occurring morphine called endorphins are released by the body to block pain. It is believed that acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins into the nervous system. This is another explanation of how acupuncture treats pain, and may explain its success when used as surgical anesthesia. Some possible flaws with this theory arise when further studies are performed. For example, the pain relief established through acupuncture for an arthritic knee is not usually blocked or diminished by the use of anti-morphine drugs. This puts into question the belief that endorphins are the cause of reduced pain during acupuncture treatments. Another point to consider is that endorphins only last about twenty minutes in the body. How then does acupuncture provide long-term pain relief? Both the Endorphin and Gate Theories are unable to explain this, and neither accounts for acupuncture’s undeniable effects on the internal body.

The Autonomic Nervous System Theory suggests that acupuncture works by influencing the autonomic nervous system. This simple statement holds enormous possibilities. Little is understood about the way in which the autonomic system works. We do know that it controls the body’s breathing, heartbeat, digestion, and that it functions independently from our conscious control. For example, asthma is due to a contraction of the small breathing tubes that allow air to enter the lungs. As these tubes contract, and become gummed up, the airflow in the tubes becomes turbulent, causing the whistle or wheeze that is heard in asthmatics. The small breathing tubes are lined with muscle, and this muscle is largely controlled by the autonomic system. When acupuncture is used to treat this type of disease it is logical to suppose that it works through the autonomic system, and it seems possible that many of the effects of acupuncture on diseases, like indigestion and diarrhea, work through the same system.

Modern science has yet to determine exactly how acupuncture works, however clinical evidence clearly demonstrates the benefits of this ancient medicine. Numerous studies have been performed in China and around the world, scientifically documenting the effects of acupuncture. Currently, more U.S. studies are being performed with strict scientific guidelines in an ongoing effort to better understand the mechanism behind this healing art.