Answers to common questions about Acupuncture
Does Acupuncture hurt?
Generally it should not be painful.
It is normal to feel a mild tingle or dull ache as the acupuncturist adjusts the needle. This sensation is known as "deqi". If you do feel any discomfort please inform your acupuncturist who will be able to adjust or remove that particular needle. Acupuncture needles are so fine that many people don't feel them being inserted. While the needles are in place many people feel very relaxed.
How does Acupuncture work?
Acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system. This, in turn, releases chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These biochemical changes may stimulate the body's natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well-being.
Chinese Medicine theory uses the concept of “qi”. For example, when somebody is in pain, this is considered to be a blockage in flow of qi. An acupuncturist will select points along the meridian(s) that are affected in order to encourage the qi to flow more freely. We are all familiar with a cartoon character that is angry: the head swells and the face goes red. Similarly, if someone is persistently angry, the qi is thought to rise up. An acupuncturist may choose points in the feet to bring the qi down.
The overall aim is to direct the flow of qi to trigger your body’s healing response and to restore physical, emotional and mental equilibrium. Treatment is designed to affect your whole being as well as your symptoms so, as the condition being treated improves, you may notice other health problems resolve and an increased feeling of wellbeing.
From a modern science perspective, one of the first potential mechanisms and probably the most famously known mechanism is the release of endorphins. However, it is unlikely that the effects of acupuncture can be attributed to a single mechanism. There are a number of possibilities which include :
peripheral effects (release of adenosine and nitric oxide by axonal and dorsal root reflexes)
spinal effects (modulation of sympathetic tone and motor reflexes)
modulation of endogenous descending paying inhibitory and facilitatory systems
changing the functional connectivity of the brain. Activation deactivation of
limbic structures involved in stress/ illness responses
the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis
the prefrontal and frontal cortices
restoration of the default mode state
modulation of parasympathetic activity
activation of the reward and mirror systems
modulation of activation of the immune system
expectation, attention, conditioning an extinction of conditioned responses
A landmark study recently published in Nature showed a mechanism that is related to a specific acupuncture but not another. This study demonstrated that vagal-adrenal anti-inflammatory axis in mice was driven by the stimulation of the point ST36 but not ST25 . The importance of this study is that it suggests a specific effect of an acupuncture point. In other words, the mechanisms of acupuncture are not simply general effects which occur regardless of where the needles are inserted.
1. Lund I, Lundeberg T. Mechanisms of acupuncture. Acupuncture and Related Therapies 2016;4(4):26-30. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arthe.2016.12.001
2. Liu S, Wang Z, Su Y, et al. A neuroanatomical basis for electroacupuncture to drive the vagal-adrenal axis. Nature 2021;Oct;598(7882)(1476-4687 (Electronic)):641-45. doi: doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-04001-4