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The Science of Acupuncture

By West Norwood Therapies Team, Jul 26 2017 08:00AM

Acupuncturist Philippa Summers explores the science behind acupuncture, looking at how it works, the structures involved and how Western science is starting to explain ancient Eastern tradition. Fascinating!

How does it work?

We know for certain that acupuncture works. Descriptions of how it works vary considerably from the Eastern view of channels and qi to the scientific view. They describe exactly the same thing, viewed through a different lens using different language, and this blog is concerned with what is understood from a scientific perspective. Through the results of high quality research we know increasingly more about how it works. For years sceptics claimed its effects were placebo but that has now been firmly shown not to be the case. Here, I’d like to run through some of the mechanisms by which acupuncture has been proven to work and also look at some interesting ideas that may in the future add detail to what we already know.

Nerves, Biomolecules and Fascia

Nerve cells
Nerve cells

Acupuncture works via several mechanisms including via the nerves the run for the periphery to the brain, via a range of biomolecules that finely tune our physiology and metabolism, and also via the fascia, the matrix of tissue that wraps every structure in the body in one interconnected web. What they all have in common is that they provide routes of communication from one part of the body to another. These mechanisms have been proven through high quality research, by some of the world’s leading institutions, with the results published in respected scientific journals. Blocking the mechanisms of action, blocks the effect of acupuncture.

The effects of acupuncture are similarly multi-dimensional. Acupuncture influences our metabolism and is able to regulate digestion, blood pressure, cardiovascular function, the immune system and the nervous system, helping us to feel more relaxed and helping our bodies switch into a more restorative, less stressed mode. It has pain relieving effects that work both at the level of the brain via endorphins and at the location of an injury via adenosine. Acupuncture has actions that support a three stages of tissue healing through its anti-inflammatory effects, its ability to influence blood flow and to stimulate the formation of new blood vessels at the site of injury. The action of acupuncture is undoubtedly mediated through the action of other biomolecules, in addition to endorphins and adenosine, but they are examples of 2 that have been extensively studied, one acting in the brain and the other locally.

The Fascia

The Fascia plays and important organisational role in embryogenesis and connects every part of the body with every other part

It is the role of the fascia that most interests me. The fascia is a matrix that connects every part of the body with every other part via one large interconnected web. You can see it easily on a raw chicken leg, as the thin clear film that covers the fleshy muscles beneath the skin. It is of particular interest to me because it has the most direct connection to the physical act of needling a point. What we understand scientifically also aligns with the teachings of acupuncture that have been handed down from generation to generation throughout China and the far East for 3,000 years. It played a vital organisational role as we developed from a single cell into a baby and continues to play a vital role in separating the body into compartments, which are all interlinked. The channels of acupuncture are the spaces between structures that lie along the routes of fascial planes. The acupuncture points along these routes have heightened electrical properties – enabling them to be detected by machines - although in the clinic we find them by touch.

Acupuncture stretches the collagen fibres and fibroblasts within fascia, producing electricity and releasing chemical messengers

The effects of acupuncture on the fascia have been extensively researched by Helene Langevin, a Professor in Residence at Harvard Medical School. Fascia is composed of strands of collagen and fibroblasts cells. When stretched the collagen fibres produce tiny electric currents and the fibroblasts release chemicals. To get an effect from acupuncture, one vital part of the ancient Eastern teachings is gentle twiddling or flicking the handle of the needles. This stretches the collagen and fibroblasts producing a mild dull achey sensation. Don’t let that put you off having acupuncture, the needles are hair width and the sensation only lasts about a second and is not unpleasant. To increase the dose of acupuncture, the needles are twiddled or flicked at more regular intervals while you lie back and relax with the needles in place, most of the time not particularly aware that they are there.

Traditional acupuncture from the East recognises much broader influences than those so far understood in scientific and medical terms. I believe that with time, more and more of what is passed down in the Traditional Eastern teachings will have scientific explanations. The fascia played a central co-ordinating role in the development of every one of us from a simple fertilised egg to a complex human being with every cell of the correct type, in the correct place, doing the correct thing. The organisational ability of the fascia, helping to direct the process of differentiation is mind boggling and it is likely that vestiges, at least, of that innate intelligence remain. Stimulating different acupuncture points, each of which has its own unique set of actions, possibly taps into the connections that remain within the fascia.

To read more about this I wholeheartedly recommend Daniel Keown’s book, ‘The Spark in the Machine’. He is a medical doctor, also trained in Traditional Acupuncture, who has used acupuncture in the A and E department of NHS hospitals, although I hasten to add this is not typically where acupuncture’s strengths lie. He became interested in acupuncture when he was 12 years old, after hearing stories from his 85 year old grandmother who had travelled around China on her own. In his book he links acupuncture theory, the actions of points and how traditional acupuncturists view the body and its connections, to the role of fascia in assisting and helping to direct the way in which we developed from cell to baby. There is a high degree of correlation. Here is a clip of Daniel Keown explaining ‘What is an acupuncture point?’

Acupuncture and Pain Control

Acupuncture has many ways of helping with pain
Acupuncture has many ways of helping with pain

Acupuncture works with the body, not against it. If you were driving your car and the oil light came on, you would not fix it by removing the bulb. Yet this is how we approach pain when we reach for pain killers, which as we are finding out, even those widely used and readily available over the counter medications like aspirin, ibuprofen and many NSAIDs, are not without their risks and side effects. Sometimes you need a pain killer and acupuncture has many effective ways to help with pain, whether it is from a sports injury, headache, migraine, period pain or cancer related pain. With acupuncture we can help to ease pain by dealing with the root cause but there are also methods that simply block the pain when the root cause cannot be addressed. It is versatile, effective and without the side effects and risks associated with many of the medicines available.

Acupuncture and wider health

Acupuncture can also affect many of our bodies systems, including mental and emotional well being

We know that the effects of acupuncture are very much wider than pain control, influencing our whole body - digestion, immunity, reproduction, cardiovascular health and of course, very importantly, our mental and emotional well-being. Acupuncture is extremely safe with many ‘side benefits’ – better sleep, more energy and generally feeling good. Having taken a look at what is understood about the mechanisms of acupuncture I hope that statements like ‘Acupuncture helps the body to heal itself’ will have a little more meaning and credence. I believe that acupuncture deserves a place besides the best that medicine has to offer, where each performs to its strengths.

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