I get asked all the time… “How does acupuncture work?” Modern science is catching up with 10,000 year old acupuncture. I’ve said for years that we just don’t have the method for seeing the structures yet – just as we didn’t understand the minute complexities of the human body – or imagine MRIs! – 200 years ago. It looks like we are slowly figuring it out! This brief guide lists physiological changes with studies cited. Below are a handful of recent articles exploring the science of acupuncture (if you scroll past them, there’s more of my thoughts on the science of acupuncture). These are just the ones that I stumbled across. If I had to time to do an exhaustive search this would be a much longer blog post. :)
From the 3rd article below: Oxygen pressure is higher at acupuncture points!
Acupuncture affects fascia and an explanation for non-scientists
New Brain Study – Acupuncture Fights Depression
Acupuncture Holds Promise for Treating Inflammatory Disease
Acupuncture as effective as drugs in treating pain, trial shows
Biological Evidence for the Existence of Acupuncture Meridians inside lymphatic vessels
But what about “all those studies” that show it’s not effective?
First of all, there are plenty of studies that prove it works. Insurance companies (even the conservative ones) now cover needles for neck and back pain, because studies have specifically proved it, although some deny claims for, say, shoulder pain, because it hasn’t specifically been studied. Makes me want to roll my eyes. Ug.
Secondly, many of the studies that “prove” it doesn’t work are deeply flawed. They have doctors doing a few recipe points they learned in a 20 – 300hr class, rather than an actual acupuncturist. Sometimes the points they choose are completely mystifying to me – not only do they leave out important ones, but there are always one or two that just make no sense at all.
Thirdly, TCM differentiates the cause of disease, but lots of studies don’t. You can have a headache due to Yang rising, or Heart xu (deficiency). When a study gives the same treatment to everyone with a headache, of course it’s not effective! The western medical equivalent is putting people with viruses, bacterial infections, and allergies in one group, giving them all an antibiotic, then declaring that drugs don’t work for runny noses.
There are other problems too, like “sham” acupuncture doing “too well” so there isn’t a statistically significant difference. In one study I read back in school, they basically compared acupressure to acupuncture… then declared nothing worked since they both did. That’s just bad study design. There should have been a third control group with no treatment.
Equine acupuncture points from the Bagyuiho (Chinese horse and cow acupuncture text), 1399
And that whole placebo thing? It may play a part, as it does with every medical procedure,
but it’s not the whole story. In other states (where it was legal without a vet supervising) I have successfully treated animals – there’s no placebo effect there! When a dog, lying limply on the floor and moaning, after 15 min of needles is bouncing up and down, jumping to kiss her owner’s face… that’s not a placebo. Neither is a rabbit regaining bladder and bowel control after a spinal injury. Of course those are anecdotal evidence, but they’re pretty compelling when they repeatedly happen in front of you. Googling for animal studies quickly gave me a whole new batch of data: Horses are studied
most often because they have money-making “careers.” Even penguins benefit!
I’ll be perfectly honest – I’m not sold on some of the more esoteric aspects of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). I don’t twirl my needles in a specific direction, for example. Thousands of years ago, when it was developed, there was philosophy as well as medicine involved, and like all ancient sciences, it could use a little update. But acupuncture itself is amazing. It stimulates neuromuscular junctions, which resets neurons (nerves control muscles, which in turn pull on bones). This helps break the cycle of spasms, or activate a non-firing muscle bundle. It reduces inflammation. It distracts nerve receptors and blocks transmission of pain signals. It helps break up fascial adhesions. With older, chronic problems it creates a microtrauma and alerts the body to a “cold case,” which restarts healing. It’s tremendous for nerve repair – check out my paper on stroke recovery. I’ve seen some truly stunning results from people who were locked inside their bodies, long after Western medical science said there would be no more improvement.
“Yang rising headaches,” is just a term for a diagnosis. It’s no more mysterious than “orthostatic hypotension’” for example, if you understand the language of TCM. The articles above show that we are just starting to understand how points work anatomically. I am confident that science will catch up and we’ll have a clear understanding of this system within my lifetime.
The good news is that it doesn’t really matter whether you believe acupuncture works… because it’s medicine, not voodoo, and it will anyway. :) The science of acupuncture is still evolving, but its effectiveness is clear.