Why does acupuncture work?
I didn’t expect to slip into a state of blissed-out repose after having thirteen needles stuck into various parts of my body, but that is exactly what happened. Two of the surgical steel needles (in ancient times, the Chinese used bone and stone) induced a slight itch, and the one near my elbow was causing a dull ache, but the irritation, or at least my perception of it, soon fell away.
I was not alone. Faint snores emanated from one of the other eight recliners at Flux, a sliding-scale community acupuncture lounge on the Westside that is almost too good to be true. Without a doubt, my descent into tranquility at the end of a long Tuesday was helped along by the reclining chair and lavender-filled eye pillow pressing into my eye sockets. But an hour later, when Caitlin Elfving, L.AC, gently removed the needles, I floated into the lobby completely relaxed yet very much awake; it was different than just waking up from a nap. I felt renewed.
“How’s it work?” asked a surfer dude, also on his way out.
It’s a question that’s difficult to answer without a solid understanding of Chinese medicine’s complex theories; the meridians or channels of the body, all corresponding to different organs, the concept of qi (or chi)—the energy, or life force, that should freely move throughout the body, but can become stagnant, causing disease.
Even after decades of study, Glenn Kazmierski, L.AC—who teaches at Five Branches University and has his own private practice in town—says he is still learning. “One doctor asked me ‘How does acupuncture work?’ I asked him, ‘How does aspirin work?’” says Kazmierski. “It’s just as difficult to explain the mechanisms of the chemicals as it is with acupuncture.” The same goes for analgesic gases, which we use regularly, though their exact mechanisms are somewhat of a mystery.
Still, acupuncture is recognized by the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health as an effective treatment for pain—and in China, it’s even used in place of analgesia during surgery.
Nerves send their signals up the spinal cord to the sensory cortex, and it’s the brain that sends “pain” back down to the signaling nerves. “Generally the chain of nerves can be blocked at several points,” says Kazmierski. “And this is how in Western medicine they block the pain, by inhibiting the chain at some point, and thereby reducing the perception of pain in the brain.” This is a brief summation of the “gate theory” in acupuncture, where pain is blocked at a point above the offending site. At the same time, “distal” points, which are often along a meridian but more distant, and often below the pain, can trigger the release of opioids and endorphins.
“So, in a way the body has all of its medicine, that’s the key,” says Kazmierski. “We are the medicine. Acupuncture allows for the body to utilize its hardwired functions to stop pain, reduce inflammation.”
Kazmierski, who calls himself an integrationist between Eastern and Western medicine, often uses acupuncture to treat pain and inflammation in the joints. Especially in the case of arthritis, he treats locally, meaning at the site of the issue.
“We can go actually into the joint, sometimes even touching the bone,” says Kazmierski. Introducing a foreign object to the body raises a red flag, and the body sends an immediate immune response to help get the needle out. “But once the needle is retained for a while, there’s an opposite effect, so then we have this anti-inflammatory function happening at the site, with increased blood flow,” says Kazmierski. In this instance, the mechanism is similar to aspirin, which is a basal dilator, opening up the flow of microcirculation, but it’s more specific and more local, says Kazmierski.
There is also evidence that when a needle is inserted, the body grabs it. Our fascia starts to wrap around it slightly, which can send communication up the entire channel, which Kazmierski defines as neurovascular bundles. And functional MRIs have shown that certain areas of the brain light up when certain points are stimulated.
As Kazmierski sees it, acupuncture is a way to finely tune the amazing machine that is the human body. “If your organs are enhanced and your nerves are firing well, you’re a stronger human being, and you’re going to be more adaptable,” he says.