The Science of Acupuncture
August 30, 2014
Better Than Pain Drugs, But Your Doctor Would Probably Laugh at It
Acupuncture is an ancient holistic health care system still widely practiced in China. It falls under the wider umbrella, known in the West as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which also includes the use of herbs and other therapies. Diagnostic systems also include tongue and pulse diagnosis.
Contrary to allopathic, symptom-based medicine, TCM and acupuncture aims to eliminate the root cause of your problem, which is said to originate in a dysfunction in your body’s energetic meridian system.
Western vs. Eastern Mindset
Meridian-based energy therapies like acupuncture are quite useful for treating a number of health problems; pain in particular. In China, acupuncture may even be used in lieu of anesthetic drugs during surgery, as demonstrated in the BBC documentary above.As unbelievable as it seems, a young woman actually undergoes open heart surgery with acupuncture instead of general anesthesia.There are several advantages to using acupuncture during surgical procedures, the Chinese surgeon explains. For starters, it doesn’t have the health risks of general anesthesia. Recovery is also much quicker, and the cost is about one-third.While most westerners would balk at undergoing invasive surgery with nothing but a few needles keeping pain at bay, each year, millions of Americans do turn to acupuncture to relieve chronic pain, high blood pressure, nausea, and much more.Acupuncture is considered an alternative to conventional forms of medicine in the West and is actually one of the oldest healing practices in the world. In China, Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries, acupuncture has been used for thousands of years, and its staying power isn’t merely a matter of superstition or coincidence.In modern-day China, some hospitals offer acupuncture and allopathic medicine side-by-side, allowing patients to choose. They can also opt for a combination of both. For example, if an adverse drug effect occurs, the patient can opt for a reduced dose in combination with acupuncture.
Basic Principles of Acupuncture
TCM views the body as a cohesive one—a complex system where everything within it is inter-connected—where each part affects all other parts. They teach that lack of balance within this biological system is the precursor to all illness. The body exhibits symptoms when suffering from inner disease, and if it’s not re-balanced these symptoms may lead to acute or chronic illnesses of all kinds.
There are 14 major energy channels called meridians that flow through your body. An energy called chi circulates along the meridians to all parts of your body, including the internal organs and every cell. This chi is the vital force that literally keeps us alive. Vibrant health is a result of balanced, unimpeded flow of energy through the body.
According to TCM, illness and pain is the byproduct of energy blockages somewhere along one or more meridians. Each acupuncture point along the meridian acts like a pass-through or gate. Energy can get “bottle-necked” in these points, slowing down the flow; sometimes to the point of standstill. This is the precursor to pain and illness.
By inserting a thin needle into the congested or “clogged” area, it opens the gate and allows the energy to flow again. With the life-energy flowing smoothly, the body can now re-regulate the flow of energy, repair itself, and maintain its own optimal level of health.
Herbs and other therapies such as guacha, cupping, and moxibustion—the burning of herbs on or over the skin—can be used to support the healing.
History of Acupuncture
The science and art of acupuncture is well documented and spans across centuries, all the way back to the Stone Age. Records of its use have been found in many parts of the world, not just the Orient, as most commonly thought.
The Chinese medical compendium, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, is the oldest written record about acupuncture. It is thought to be the oldest medical book in the world, heralding from Emperor Huang Di who reigned between 2,696—2,598 B.C.
However, signs of acupuncture being used are found all over the ancient world. There’s evidence of its practice in ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, parts of Europe, and South America. Even our North American Indians have used it.
The Eskimos, for example, are said to still use sharpened stones for treating illness. Written evidence of the use of acupuncture in Egypt and Saudi Arabia also exists. The Ebers papyrus of 1,550 B.C. describes a physical system of channels and vessels that is closely matched to the Chinese system of meridians.
Even older evidence than the examples above exist. In 1991, a 5,000-year-old mummified man was found along the Otz valley between Austria and Italy. Remarkably well preserved, a complex system of tattoos were discovered on his body, and verified to be directly on, or within six millimeters of, traditional acupuncture points and meridians.
Evidence Showing What Acupuncture ‘Does’
Some research suggests that acupuncture stimulates your central nervous system to release natural chemicals that alter bodily systems, pain, and other biological processes. In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted an extensive review and analysis of clinical trials involving acupuncture. According to this report,1 acupuncture impacts the body on multiple levels, including:
- Stimulating the conduction of electromagnetic signals, which may release immune system cells or pain-killing chemicals
- Activation of your body’s natural opioid system, which may help reduce pain or induce sleep
- Stimulation of your hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which modulate numerous body systems
- Change in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, which may positively influence brain chemistryIn the featured video, a team of researchers, along with an acupuncturist, conduct an experiment that has never been done before. Using high tech MRI imaging, they were able to visually demonstrate that acupuncture has a very real effect on the brain.Acupuncture, it turns out, does something completely unexpected—it deactivates certain parts of the brain, particularly in the limbic system, decreasing neuronal activity, opposed to having an activating impact. Their experiment also clearly showed that superficial sham needling did NOT have this effect. The limbic system is associated with our experience of pain, adding further evidence that something very unique happens during acupuncture—it quite literally alters your experience of pain by shutting down these deeper brain regions.
Acupuncture Proven Effective for Pain and Osteoarthritis
One of the most common uses of acupuncture is for the treatment of chronic pain. One analysis2 of the most robust studies available concluded that acupuncture has a clear effect in reducing chronic pain, more so than standard drug-based pain treatment. Study participants receiving acupuncture reported an average 50 percent reduction in pain, compared to a 28 percent pain reduction for standard pain treatment without acupuncture. Another large, well-designed study3, 4 assessing whether acupuncture might work for osteoarthritis—a debilitating condition affecting more than 20 million Americans—also produced remarkably positive results.This landmark study is also discussed in the video above. A total of 570 patients diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the knee were enrolled for this 26-week long trial. It was the longest and largest randomized, controlled phase III clinical trial of acupuncture ever conducted. None of the participants had tried acupuncture before, and none had had knee surgery in the previous six months. Nor had they used steroid injections. The participants were randomly assigned to receive one of three treatments: acupuncture, sham acupuncture, or self-help strategies recommended by the Arthritis Foundation (the latter served as a control group).Significant differences in response was seen by week eight and 14, and at the end of the trial, the group receiving real acupuncture had a 40 percent decrease in pain and a nearly 40 percent improvement in function compared to baseline assessments—a 33 percent difference in improvement over the sham group. According to Stephen E. Straus, M.D., Director of National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH):5"For the first time, a clinical trial with sufficient rigor, size, and duration has shown that acupuncture reduces the pain and functional impairment of osteoarthritis of the knee. These results also indicate that acupuncture can serve as an effective addition to a standard regimen of care and improve quality of life for knee osteoarthritis sufferers. NCCAM has been building a portfolio of basic and clinical research that is now revealing the power and promise of applying stringent research methods to ancient practices like acupuncture."
Other Science-Backed Uses for Acupuncture
However, chronic pain is only one of 30+ proven uses for this natural treatment. Chinese doctors assert that acupuncture can be used to treat virtually ANY illness, but for those looking for scientific validation, the World Health Organization’s analysis concluded that acupuncture is an effective treatment for the following diseases and conditions.
According to the WHO’s analysis: “Some of these studies have provided incontrovertible scientific evidence that acupuncture is more successful than placebo treatments in certain conditions.” The report again confirmed its benefits for pain, saying: “The proportion of chronic pain relieved by acupuncture is generally in the range 55–85 percent, which compares favorably with that of potent drugs (morphine helps in 70 percent of cases) and far outweighs the placebo effect (30–35 percent).”
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever) Biliary colic Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke) Dysentery, acute bacillary Dysmenorrhoea, primary Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm) Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders) Headache Hypertension, essential Hypotension, primary Induction of labor Knee pain Leukopenia Low back pain Malposition of fetus Morning sickness Nausea and vomiting Neck pain Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction) Periarthritis of shoulder Postoperative pain Renal colic Rheumatoid arthritis Sciatica Sprain Stroke Tennis elbow
More Potential Uses for Acupuncture
While further research is needed, acupuncture has also demonstrated therapeutic effects in the treatment of the following health problems, according to the WHO’s report.
Abdominal pain (in acute gastroenteritis or due to gastrointestinal spasm) Acne vulgaris Alcohol dependence and detoxification Bell’s palsy Bronchial asthma Cancer pain Cardiac neurosis Cholecystitis, chronic, with acute exacerbation Cholelithiasis Competition stress syndrome Craniocerebral injury, closed Diabetes mellitus, non-insulin-dependent Earache Epidemic haemorrhagic fever Epistaxis, simple (without generalized or local disease) Eye pain due to subconjunctival injection Female infertility Facial spasm Female urethral syndrome Fibromyalgia and fasciitis Gastrokinetic disturbance Gouty arthritis Hepatitis B virus carrier status Herpes zoster (human (alpha) herpesvirus 3) Hyperlipaemia Hypo-ovarianism Insomnia Labor pain Lactation, deficiency Male sexual dysfunction, non-organic Ménière disease Neuralgia, post-herpetic Neurodermatitis Obesity Opium, cocaine and heroin dependence Osteoarthritis Pain due to endoscopic examination Pain in thromboangiitis obliterans Polycystic ovary syndrome (Stein-Leventhal syndrome) Postextubation in children Postoperative convalescence Premenstrual syndrome Prostatitis, chronic Pruritus Radicular and pseudoradicular pain syndrome Raynaud syndrome, primary Recurrent lower urinary-tract infection Reflex sympathetic dystrophy Retention of urine, traumatic Schizophrenia Sialism, drug-induced Sjögren syndrome Sore throat (including tonsillitis) Spine pain, acute Stiff neck Temporomandibular joint dysfunction Tietze syndrome Tobacco dependence Tourette syndrome Ulcerative colitis, chronic Urolithiasis Vascular dementia Whooping cough (pertussis)