Acupuncture is a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a holistic healing system that originated in China over 3,000 years ago. It is one of the oldest continuously-practiced systems of medicine in the world. The practice of acupuncture has withstood the test of time for one simple reason – it works. Acupuncture is currently used by a quarter of the world’s population, mostly in Asia, and its popularity is growing rapidly in the West as scientific trials prove its efficacy and its benefits become widely recognized and integrated with mainstream healthcare.
Acupuncture is rooted in the belief that all living beings possess vital energy, called “qi.” In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the abundant and smooth flow of qi in the body is central to overall health. After thousands of years of empirical research, Chinese medicine doctors have mapped out a network of channels or pathways called meridians through which qi flows in the body between distinct organ systems, connecting them to all the areas and parts of the body, including the muscles, bones, and joints.
The ancient Chinese also proposed that every living thing is sustained by two opposing yet complementary energetic forces, called yin and yang. In Chinese medicine, health is a manifestation of balance of the yin and yang, both within the human body itself and between the person and the universe. When the body is internally balanced and in harmony with its external environment, qi flows smoothly through the meridians to nourish the organs and tissues. When the qi in one of the meridians becomes obstructed or blocked, whether due to illness, physical or emotional trauma, environmental factors, or lifestyle choices, the proper flow of energy is disrupted, upsetting the body’s innate balance and giving rise to disease. Once the balance is restored, health returns.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Acupuncture works by restoring the internal yin and yang balance and optimizing the energy flow throughout the body via acupuncture points – distinct sites along the meridian pathways where qi is most readily accessed. Fine sterile disposable needles are inserted into specific acupuncture points to elicit a therapeutic response designed to adjust the flow of qi in the body, channeling it to areas where it is needed and draining it from areas where it is stagnant or in excess. In this way, acupuncture taps into the body’s innate healing abilities to restore balance and foster health. This sophisticated yet subtle method of treatment is so effective because acupuncture takes into consideration the person as a whole. It aims not only to eliminate symptoms, but to treat the underlying cause. Aside from addressing the chief complaint, some of the immediate benefits of an acupuncture treatment include a feeling of calm, balance, and well-being, deep and restful sleep, increased energy better ability to handle stress, and an overall improved function and vitality of body, mind, and spirit.
Acupuncture and Modern Science
The World Health Organization lists over forty conditions, ranging from anxiety to osteoarthritis, for which acupuncture has proven effective. Research at the National Institutes of Health has established the efficacy of acupuncture in treating several problems, including post-operative pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea. As for how acupuncture works, scientists may have identified some, but far from all, of the answers.
To the human body, acupuncture needles are a physical stimulus. In Western science, a stimulus is defined as a detectable change in either the external environment or within the body itself. The body reacts to detecting such a change by producing a response. Although acupuncture is not yet fully understood by Western science, with modern technology scientists can now actually begin to “see” the body’s response to acupuncture. For example, studies using functional MRI clearly show activation of particular areas of the brain when specific acupuncture points are needled.
Recent research suggests acupuncture works to facilitate the flow of lymph- and oxygen-rich blood, remove obstructions in the muscles and nerves, trigger hormonal release, and relax the nervous system. Studies show that acupuncture points stimulate the central nervous system to release pain-relieving chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. Acupuncture also stimulates the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which control parts of the nervous and endocrine systems, many of the body’s essential hormones, and functions such as sleep, temperature regulation, and appetite.
Acupuncture may also alter brain chemistry by affecting the release of neurotransmitters, biochemical substances that stimulate or inhibit nerve impulses, and neuro-hormones, chemical substances that impact the activity of the organ systems. Two such chemicals include endorphins and serotonin. Endorphins are the body’s natural form of painkillers that our body releases at times of pain and stress. Serotonin is also known to help with pain relief, but is more specifically known to affect mood, emotions, and behavior. This provides a glimpse into how acupuncture can effectively treat not only physical, but psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.
Acupuncture can affect and integrate different systems of the body, such as the nervous, endocrine, circulatory, reproductive, and digestive functions, allowing it to generate profound changes in the body’s ability to self-regulate and heal, making this ancient form of medicine a highly effective, natural and drug-free alternative for the treatment of many conditions which do not respond well to a conventional Western medical approach.
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