What is Acupuncture and How Does It Work?

How do you explain a 2,500-year-old Chinese treatment using our 200-year-old Western Medical knowledge and how do our Western minds get around the concept of energy flow and meridians?

I am a physiotherapist trained in Western Medical acupuncture and this suits my scientific mind, but I am fascinated by the origins and this cannot be ignored in practice. Although I am far from an expert, this is my interpretation and the explanation I offer my patients.


Female holding acupuncture needles. Find out how back pain, neck pain and headaches can be treated with acupuncture by reading our latest article.

Acupuncture is one of the most popular forms of complimentary medicine in the UK and is often discovered when conventional treatments have failed and sits within the area of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM). Acupuncture has been recognised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for its benefits in treating migraines and tension type headaches and is offered on the NHS for these conditions. The evidence for its effects on low back pain and other pain conditions is also growing but patients often need to seek private acupuncturists for treatment, either from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) acupuncturist or a Western Medical Acupuncturist.

Whichever practitioner you chose, acupuncture is the insertion of extremely fine needles into certain sites in the body to encourage natural healing. The number of needles and location of these points is determined from taking a thorough medical history and examination. These needles will stay in for approximately 20 minutes. The difference will come in the answer to the question, “how does acupuncture work?”.

The Traditional concept:

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the belief that a vital energy flows in the body along channels called ‘Meridians’.

Within Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are 12 major meridians associated with the human body; divided equally between ‘Yin Meridians’ and ‘Yang Meridians’. The six yin meridians are located in the inner regions of the arms, legs, chest and torso. Whereas conversely the yan meridians are located on the outer region of the arms, legs, head and torso. The meridians work as a network which are similar to the circulatory system in Western Medicine, but it should be understood that meridians are non-physical. The 12 major meridians cover:

  1. Lung
  2. Large Intestine
  3. Stomach
  4. Spleen
  5. Heart
  6. Small Intestine
  7. Bladder
  8. Kidney
  9. Pericardium
  10. Triple Heater
  11. Gall Bladder
  12. Liver

Like with all Yin-Yang pairs, each of the Twelve Main Meridians exist as a connecting pair. So, if you have ever seen an acupuncture model and have wondered what the points or dots are on the body, they are location points for specific meridians.

If the energy that flows through the body, called “Qi” (pronounced chee) is out of balance or blocked, pain or illness can occur within the body. Equally, a slowing of Qi may cause pain and inflammation, whilst a deficit in Qi may lead to weakness or fatigue. An excess of Qi may present as irritability and stress. Pain is caused by “stuck” Qi.

So, Acupuncture aims to restore the balance of Qi and thus restore health.

Model Showing Acupuncture Meridian Lines. Find how acupuncture can help you with a range of conditions with Acuphysio.

The Western Medical concept:

Western Medical Acupuncture works on the premise that by inserting needles into these specific points, enhanced pain modulation occurs via stimulation of the brain and spinal cord. This results in the body producing its own natural painkillers, endorphins, some of which are tens of times more potent than morphine. In addition to this, the body produces its own feel-good chemicals such as serotonin which enhances well-being, melatonin which promotes sleep and acetylcholine which assists tissue healing.

Whether your outlook is from the Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective or the Western Medical concept, Acupuncture can provide the following key benefits:

  • Promotes blood flow and circulation. Everything the body needs to heal is in the blood.
  • Stimulates the body’s own healing system (micro trauma from the needles stimulates repair)
  • Produces the body’s own natural painkillers
  • Reduces the intensity and perception of chronic pain
  • Relaxes tight muscles
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Reduces stress and enhances well-being

Scientific research has shown that Meridians are similar to the blood vessel system and visceral system and that acupuncture points are areas of higher vascularisation. Computerised imaging has been used to show the effects of acupuncture on pain centres in the brain.

So, it seems the ancient Chinese knew over 2,000 years ago what we are only beginning to understand today. Qi has been more difficult to explain in Western biomedical terms but maybe, in time we will!

A woman having acupuncture treatment to her shoulder. Find out how this can benefit you by reading our latest article on HealthHubble.

So, will acupuncture work for me?

This is a difficult question to answer. As for many different types of treatments, different people respond in different ways and like taking tablets, unfortunately there is no guarantee that acupuncture will work. Some people report immediate relief, while others need a few treatments to achieve a response. So, where there may not be a simple answer to this question, there are a number of things you should expect and understand prior to embarking on Acupuncture as a treatment.

Firstly, acupuncture should be a pleasant and relaxing experience and as a physiotherapist, I have been continually amazed by its effects in treating pain. So often, patients who have seen numerous therapists and tried many medications finally resort to “trying” acupuncture and it can be a real game changer. I would like to think that as people are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of acupuncture, it is a treatment that is offered much sooner so that they can benefit much sooner.

Secondly, acupuncture is a safe treatment when administered by a competent and regulated practitioner so make sure your clinician is regulated by a governing body such as the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP) or the British Acupuncture Council (BAAC).

To offer you peace of mind, you can always search their registers to find registered practitioner. You can always discuss any concerns you may have with your practitioner, who will be pleased to answer any questions you have either at the beginning of your treatment, during or after.

Acupuncture Physical Therapies

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