How Does Acupuncture Work?
“Oh, I believe in acupuncture.”
by Elizabeth Carpenter, MS, L.Ac.
Director, Oriens Living, New York
Sometimes people say this to me conspiratorially, like we’re both confessing to something akin to faith in the tooth fairy and genies.
Sometimes their statement is meant to confirm their position in the billion dollar alternative medicine consumer movement, providing options for wellness, prevention and “healing” to those not fully satisfied, or not served at all, by the modern healthcare system.
And sometimes, particularly when they are new patients, the statement seems meant to reassure us both that the work we’re about to do together is likely to be effective.
After all, acupuncture’s reputation precedes it: you enter treatment for one thing (for example Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and end up with all sorts of side benefits like great sleep, good mood and abundant energy.
Still, I can’t help but smile internally. Because it really doesn’t matter. And yet it does.
It doesn’t matter -- because acupuncture’s therapeutics are not belief-dependent.
And yet it does matter -- because of the role placebo plays in every therapy. Whether it’s your new drug from your MD, or your acupuncture treatment, if you “believe” it will work, you give yourself a bonus, so to speak, a little expeditor boost.
So... “Do you believe in acupuncture?”
Millions of people do, and here are the two main reasons why you should: track record and proof.
Acupuncture expanded from China to Japan in 219 A.D., was in Korea by 514 A.D., in Vietnam by the 8th century. It got to Europe by the 17th century, with France as the early adopter 100 years earlier. America got ahold of it late, the 20th century.
So here’s my second question, “how can a bogus healthcare system develop in sophistication, and spread worldwide over 21 centuries?”
To me, however, the most exciting and compelling reasons to believe are scientific ones. Well actually, science is second. First place has to go to all the “miracles” in my clinic and those of my colleagues: people getting well who’ve failed so many other therapies, babies getting conceived to previously infertile couples, lives being restored. But back to science…
In the West we’ve categorized Qi (chee) or “energy” as completely unscientific. Never mind that medical imaging, space and computer technologies, and even simple conveniences like electric lights are results of harnessing and manipulating energy. Never mind the electromagnetic gradients of cell behavior and the electromagnetic fields of the heart and brain …. Qi is a ridiculous concept, right?
The premise of acupuncture – that there are “energy pathways” in the body that have been reliably mapped, and can be reliably manipulated to restore health and function, but are not able to be seen – is itself what laughs acupuncture out of legitimacy in a biomedicine centric world.
But here’s the thing: now we know “Qi” and “meridians” are real.
Stereo-microscope photographs and images from transmission electron microscopy in the research papers show assemblies of tubular structures 1-2 μm wide (red blood cells are 6-8 μm in diameter).
Apparently these structures have remained undiscovered for so long because they are almost transparent and so thin that they are barely visible with low-magnification surgical microscopes.
They’re called Bonghan Ducts (after the researcher that first found them), that cover organs and travel distally all the way out to fingers and toes via specific channels. The channels have been found inside blood and lymphatic vessels, in the brain, cerebrospinal fluid and spinal cord, and also form networks that overlay internal organs.
In other words, they are just like and just where the ancient (and modern) acupuncture texts map them to be.
They are associated with embryonic organization, persist through adulthood, and contain both DNA and adult stem cells, perhaps accounting for why acupuncture is always regulatory, never detrimental, and explaining why the same point can bring resolution for opposite concerns (for example constipation and diarrhea), and have both immediate and longterm effects of restoring function.
The Bonghan ducts and channels system helps account for acupuncture’s broad regulatory effects on core health systems: immune, hematopoiesis, hormone paths, all the organ systems, all the circulatory systems.
So now there are three pools of science explaining how acupuncture works:
The Neurophysiology Model
Acupuncture channels are independent but use the nerve system and stimulate the brain to change physiology throughout the body. This includes acupuncture's effect on endorphin release (pain killers), other brain chemistry, as well as hormones, and other chemical messengers
The Connective Tissue Model
Acupuncture points are mostly located in areas featuring connective tissue, the web of ground substance, a matrix, that holds us together, literally. Acupuncture cues travel the matrix exerting local and long-distance effects.
The Growth Control Model
The Bonghan ducts, as above.
The truth is, science is doing it’s thing: it’s asking questions, to arrive at verifiable stories of how things work.
In the meantime, that acupuncture works,is not a question for the billions of users of acupuncture worldwide. It’s a fact. As science catches up on the exact mechanisms of action, proving them through the gold standard method of the randomized controlled trial, you can still get in on the benefits for whatever you’d like to restore or improve.
You don’t even have to believe . . . but it wouldn’t hurt.
More to Read:
Feulgen Reaction Study of Novel Threadlike Structures (Bonghan Ducts) on the Surfaces of Mammalian Organs , Shin et al., THE ANATOMICAL RECORD (PART B: NEW ANAT.) 284B:35–40, 2005
Bonghan Circulatory System as an Extension of Acupuncture Meridians, Kwang-Sup Soh, J Acupunct Meridian Stud 2009;2(2):93−106
Charles Shang, MD, Dept. of Medicine, Harvard Medical School;