Does Acupuncture Work?

Over the past 20 years in America, Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine has gained a great amount of exposure and respect both in the popular press and in the general medical community; so much so that it has been incorporated into many hospital systems and clinics. Acupuncture is often included in many insurance plans.

Acupuncture works by helping the body to heal itself

Many people feel they know acupuncture and Chinese medicine works from personal experience, what others tell them or reading about it. Simply put: Acupuncture works by helping the body to heal itself.

Western Medicine’s strength lies in its ability to quickly intervene though surgery and pharmaceuticals to take over for the body and repair problems or blunt symptoms from the outside in like a mechanic repairing a machine.

The idea that a medical systems goal is to spark the body’s own intrinsic healing resources has not been broadly considered in Western Medicine and is generally unfamiliar.

Western Medicine is beginning to understand the idea and process through imaging and neuro-chemical studies that show acupuncture has the ability to spark profound healthy changes in the functioning of the body.  In other words: Acupuncture stimulates your body to make its own medicine to heal.

The ancient and modern science of Acupuncture: Unraveling the mysteries of Qi

 The following article is an attempt to briefly describe and clarify the development of Acupuncture and Chinese medicine and how it works from a modern perspective.

“I can feel the Qi.”

A popular understanding of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine often times involves a mysterious energetic substance not unlike The Force in Star Wars known as Qi (pronounced “chi”) that circulates through invisible “meridians” in the body.

Within this understanding health and disease are mitigated by the balance or unbalance, free flow or blockage and abundance or deficiency of Qi in the “meridians” and organ systems they originate from.

Thus health is restored when Acupuncture, Qi Gong and herbal medicine is applied and the proper flow of Qi returns.  In fact when receiving Acupuncture it often feels like Qi is moving throughout the body alleviating pain and suffering.

While this popular notion of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine does reflect many peoples personal experience it makes it difficult to explain, study, advance and integrate it within a modern medical context.  Fortunately there exists, both ancient and modern, explanation of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine that dispels the misunderstanding of “meridians”, defines “Qi” far beyond mysterious energy and clarifies the healing process of Chinese Medicine and  Acupuncture.

Where did “meridians” and Qi come from?

One of the first and most popular translations of Chinese Medicine was by George Soulié de Morant a diplomat, not a physician, who translated Chinese Medical text in the 1920’s after living in

China in the teens.  His translations became the primary foundation of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture and its understanding in the West.

Unfortunately his mistranslation of vessel and channel into “meridian” and Qi as “energy” have caused a great deal of misunderstanding and hampered its inclusion into modern medical practices in the west.  Based on his texts it was assumed that Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture was not based on human anatomy and physiology and thus was not compatible with modern medicine. In fact the opposite was true.

Ancient and Modern integration of Anatomy and Physiology

The Chinese were performing detailed human dissections where they carefully measured the blood vessels and weighed the internal organs at a time when western physicians thought the body was made up of “humors” (2500 BCE). These dissections helped Chinese physicians to discover the phenomenon of continuous blood circulation 2,000 years before it was discovered in the west. The discovery of blood circulation is still considered the single most important event in the history of medicine.  These detailed observations lead to the discovery and development of Acupuncture vessels or channels, not meridians, that occur along the neurovascular nodes throughout the body.

Modern research has demonstrated that neurovascular nodes (acupuncture points) contain a high concentration of sensory nerve fibers, fine blood vessels, fine lymphatic vessels, and mast cells. These nodes are distributed along longitudinal pathways of the body where the collateral blood vessels supply the capillaries and fine vessels. The corneum stratum of the skin in these areas is slightly thinner with a lower electrical resistance. They also contain more sensory nerves, and have more fine vessels with sequestered mast cells than non nodes. 5

Ancient Chinese physicians recognized that neurovascular nodes (acupuncture points) on the surface of the body could reflect disease conditions in the internal organs, and that these same nodes could be stimulated to relieve pain and treat internal organ problems. This was a revolutionary discovery that formed the theoretical basis for acupuncture treatment. It was not until the early 1890s that this phenomenon of organ-referred pain was discovered in the West, by British physician William Head.

So what is Qi? 

The Term Qi in Chinese language has many meanings.  For instance Qi is used to describe such diverse phenomena as earthquakes to wind.  In the human body it means primary the vital vapor, air or the essence of air which translates to oxygen and the circulation of oxygen and other nutritive and regulatory substances.

Thus when we say that the acupuncture needle is unblocking the Qi it may be in fact activating neurovascular nodes that increase or regulate blood flow and oxygenation, decrease inflammation, improve and regulate organ function, improve and regulating immune function and stop pain.

I would like to leave you with two quotes that sum up the importance of understanding Chinese Medicine in a modern context.

“Why does anyone care whether Chinese anatomy and physiology are explained as energy flowing through meridians, or by the circulation of blood, nutrients, other vital substances, and vital air (qi) through the vascular system? The answer to that lies in the moral obligation of every practitioner to provide each patient with the latest medical understanding available.

The need to continually search for the truth is the most fundamental principle of science and medicine… Research so far shows that the true concepts of Chinese Medicine operate under known physiological principles, involving the complex organization of the neural, vascular, endocrine, and somatic systems, sustained by the circulation of nutrients, vital substances, and oxygen from vital air.”

–                Donald E, Kendall, “Dao of Chinese Medicine” (2002)

“It is a fact that more than 95 percent of all literature published in western languages on Chinese medicine reflect western expectations rather than Chinese historical reality.”

–                Paul Unschuld, historian of Chinese medicine

If you are interested in more research and a deeper understanding I encourage you to read Donald Kendell’s book:  The Dao of Chinese Medicine.

Unschuld, PU. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in Ancient Chinese Medical Text.Berkeley. University of California Press. 2003 

Schnorrenberger, CC. Morphological foundations of acupuncture: an anatomical nomenclature of acupuncture structures. BMAS Acupuncture in Medicine, 1996. Nov;14(3):89-103

Soulie De Morant, Georges. L’Acuponcture chinoise. Tome I L’ energie(Points, Meridians, Circulation). Mercur de France, 1939 (French)

Unschuld, PU. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in Ancient Chinese Medical Text.

Berkeley. University of California Press. 2003 

Kendall, Donald. The Dao of Chinese Medicine. Oxford University Press, 2002.