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How Does Acupuncture Work?

Acupuncture works in several different ways depending on the paradigm used to view it.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concepts that describe how the body works are very different from that of the West. In fact the West does not even have words for many of these concepts. Not only does this make it difficult to identify how acupuncture works from the Western Medical (WM) paradigm, it also poses the challenge of determining appropriate tests to research acupuncture.

Western Medicine Explanation of Acupuncture

It is generally accepted in Western Medicine that acupuncture produces neuro-physiological (nerve system function) and neuro-hormonal (nerve and hormone) effects. Acupuncture may work in the following ways:

  • By stimulating release of hormones: ‘opioid peptide’ hormones are released during acupuncture resulting in the analgesic (pain killing) effects of acupuncture (1)

  • Activation of the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland (in the brain): this can result in a variety of effects including alteration in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neuro-hormones, and changes in the regulation of blood flow. (1)

  • Acupuncture alters the fascia (wrappings around muscles, think 'cling film'). Fascia is commonly implicated in pain conditions (tight/knotted). (2)

Traditional Chinese Medicine Explanation of Acupuncture

Acupuncture redistributes substances such as Qi, Blood and Yin and Yang in the body, and can reinforce or reduce energy of particular organs. This is achieved by needling particular sets of acu-points in the body that have been observed and recorded over thousands of years to have specific indications for use.

Everything in the body can be reduced down to yin and yang in TCM, every independent area of the body has its own yin and yang, and every area of the body can be described as yin or yang in relation to other areas of the body.

The entire body is interdependent (depends on all aspects to function correctly) and not only that, the body is also dependent on the entirety of our external environment. Not just our physical environment such as trees for oxygen, but our work environment, our social values and families. This creates a feedback loop and in turn, just as our bodies can create, influence and alter our environment, of course our environment can in turn create, influence and alter the body – physically, mentally and emotionally, socially and if you like, spiritually.


Although WM and TCM appear to speak different languages the concepts of 'homeostasis' in WM and 'equal balance of yin and yang' in TCM, do however share similarities.

Homeostasis is the idea that the human body and cells constantly try to maintain equilibrium (balance) between the interdependent parts of the body, as well as keeping the body stable in the face of our ever changing external environment.

Equal Balance of Yin and Yang is also the idea that the body is composed of many parts that are interdependent and should be in equal balance with each other as well as the external environment.


Acupuncture utilizes the body's own healing intelligence to re-establish homeostasis and the equal balance of yin and yang.


1. Fargas - Babjak. A. (2004) Acupuncture Division: Application of contemporary medical acupuncture as a neuromodulation technique in pain management. Orthopaedic Division Review

2. Langevin. H & Yandow. J. (2002) The Anatomical Record: Relationship of acupuncture points and meridians to connective tissue planes. Wiley Online

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