A huge part of the population of the Developed World continue to be skeptical of acupuncture’s healing abilities in spite of the growing number of data proving this to be true for various kinds of ailments. Acupuncture is a Chinese healing practice used for thousands of years that is grounded in ‘non Western’ and ‘non logical’ medicine and thought. It has grown in popularity here in the United States since the early 1970s where it is considered a type of ‘alternative medicine.” A lot of individuals who have tried this treatment easily affirm to its amazing effects in the treatment of conditions such as drug addiction, asthma, and surgical pain. However, many Americans are still ignorant or doubtful that inserting of filiform needles into a person’s skin in an effort to alter the circulation of life energy (which is called Chi or Qi) in the body through energy channels known as meridians can cure unalterable and chronic problems or relieve pain. Lately, a number of assumptions where made to supply a logical explanation about the successes of acupuncture that would appeal to the people in the West. One of the most popular of these assumptions is that acupuncture stimulates the brain in order to produce and release opioid peptides. Regardless of the theory one decides to subscribe to, the medical perks and health benefits of acupuncture easily stand on their own.
The oriental healing art of acupuncture can be described as a treatment that aids and nourishes the natural healing processes of the body. After completing the wellness assessment of the patient, the acupuncturist will next diagnose the patient’s unique case, and can then commence with the treatment procedure. The traditional form of acupuncture involves the use of ultra thin, metal, sterile, non hollow needles stuck into specific points around the collaterals and meridians of the body in order to manipulate the circulation of Chi. For certain amounts of time, the needles are typically plunged into the skin several centimeters deep; occasionally, the needling process is combined with Chinese herbal medicine and/or moxibustion, which in essence involves heat or electricity.
Chi is the basic principle that supports the Eastern and Chinese explanation of how acupuncture functions. The meridians have been charted in ancient Chinese texts. They move through the body in normal patterns the same way the nervous system and circulatory system functions. Chi is very important and it flows through the body by means of these meridians. In TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine, disease is caused by an imbalance in Chi flow, which can be due to a lack of energy to the affected area or from a blockage in the meridians. Any disharmony of the Chi will affect the physical, mental, emotional, and psychic aspects of the body. It is the job of the acupuncturist to bring back the flow of Chi to healthy and normal levels. To puncture the meridians, acupuncture needles are used and inserted in a way that they come close to the skin’s surface just enough to nudge or unblock the flow of Chi, thus bringing back equilibrium in the body.
Mainly in Western Europe and the United States has acupuncture been closely studied these past few generations. A growing clamor to come up with a scientific explanation for the ‘mystical phenomenon’ that transpires within the body during an acupuncture procedure is more and more being heard. Although no specific hypothesis has successfully found or explained the impact acupuncture has on the nervous system, the most popular consensus regarding its effects is that it (acupuncture) helps release opioid peptides into the bloodstream.
These opioid peptides are actually different types of neurochemicals and neurotransmitters produced and released by the brain and the nervous system and they include dynorphins, enkephalins, and endorphins, which all can be found within the neurons of the body. These substances are thought to be closely tied with pain sensation in the central nervous system. Western scientists believe that whenever the nervous system gets trapped in a kind of negative feedback loop, pain can be felt. This can happen whenever the sensation of pain occurs at a source different from where the body truly perceives the painful sensation or when the brain has not registered the discomfort because the input to the nervous system isn’t strong enough to attain the absolute tolerance to release endorphins. In the former case, even though endorphins may have been released to a specific region, the pain’s origin remains damaged and keeps on causing discomfort even after the body presumes the condition has been taken care of.
The needling process generates the release of the opioids in the nervous system just by dispatching direct or indirect messages to the brain telling about an issue in a specific location. More often than not, the affected part of the body will begin to heal naturally after the pattern in the nervous system which was generating the discomfort is broken and stopped. Pain is then removed in the affected part of the body making the body work and move freely once more.
One other explanation for how acupuncture works is the “gate theory.” This theory explains that the signals are dispatched by the nervous system neuron to neuron, generating pain sensation in the brain. When a neuron is saddled with too much ‘pain signals’, it, like a gate, shuts down. This prevents more pain signals from reaching the brain. It is presumed that acupuncture accomplishes naturally what the body would otherwise do but cannot because the impulses are not strong enough to bring about the “closing down” of the neurons. The needles elicit a response that prevents the stronger pain signals from moving along the same nerve thus causing a painkilling effect.
These two theories (the opioid peptides and gate theories), while they provide the framework for a much better scientific explanation of the workings of acupuncture, one can still find a couple of various related ideas that are important in understanding how the treatment functions. One of the most popular of these ideas is the concept of pain memory. When talking about memory, we do not associate it with the conscious remembering of painful events, but rather to the continuity of functional and to a point, structural alterations in the central nervous system due to injury to a distal region of the body. This concept explains that discomfort can still remain even after all possible physical remedies have been tried such as enigmatic dilemmas as phantom limb discomfort and thalamic pain. Pain caused by an injury endures because the nervous systems itself underwent certain modifications, like biochemical variations or reverberating neuronal circuits causing, in essence a “memory bank” of pain that has been deeply imbedded into the physiology of the individual that acts like the condition still exists. The therapy of acupuncture can bring back the normal state of the nervous system. It does this by providing the body with a series of signals to the central nervous system, and shutting off a neural flow of pain signals to that system.
Another concept that needs further elucidation is the idea of trigger points. The body has certain trigger points that have been analyzed for some time by Western medical researchers. When further studied, these points are actually the same as the acupoints (acupuncture points) of TCM. Trigger points are found in the muscles that when pressed are very sensitive and can generate pain and other sensations. Clinical studies have confirmed the existence of these points and they may come about due to over-extenuation or neglect of a muscle. A treatment of acupuncture is usually effective to modify these points, although conventional treatments such as corticosteroids and local anesthesia can also be helpful.
Dr. Yelena Pakula is a licensed acupuncture doctor and the medical director of Vita-Health Acupuncture and Wellness Center in Pembroke Pines, FL.