Acupuncture and Science: 1. The Science

Science and Acupuncture at Advance Chiropractic & Acupuncture Clinic, Hertford

Many people know that acupuncture is related to Chinese Medicine. Some may know that it’s at least 2000 years old.

But did you know that the question of how and why acupuncture works is gradually being answered by scientific research carried out here in the West, including in the UK.

It’s the growing scientific backing for acupuncture which explains why some mainstream UK health professionals, such as GPs, Medical Consultants, Dentists and Nurses, are happy to use acupuncture in their own practices. In fact, a well-established school of medical acupuncture now exists in the UK and elsewhere, which seeks to explain acupuncture using the familiar language of Western medicine and science rather than through traditional Chinese theories.

This two-part review looks at what the science is currently telling us. If you’re sceptical about acupuncture, well that’s only natural. It’s a strange science. But read on to discover what we now know about this ‘strange science’. Links to some of the important scientific research undertaken in the quest to understand acupuncture are given.

How Acupuncture Works: Effects on the Nervous System

It is only because each of us has a functioning nervous system that we are able to feel pain in certain situations. Without our nervous system, we wouldn’t feel a thing. For example, we are likely to feel pain if we touch a hot stove. Or, if we lift something awkwardly, or it’s too heavy, we might fee pain in our back.

It’s not only my professional experience that tells me acupuncture often reduces pain. Current scientific research is telling us that acupuncture can and does reduce pain, but also how it might do this. It appears acupuncture achieves this by altering the way our nervous system responds to the factors which cause us pain, e.g., touching that hot stove.

Neurons (nerve cells). Their extensions (axons) are also shown, along which pain signals travel towards the spinal cord and brain (Courtesy Wellcome Trust)

Pain signals from the site of injury or disease (e.g., the muscles, joints, skin, tendons, bones, internal organs etc) would normally travel along nerve pathways to the spinal cord. From there, the pain signals would travel up the spinal cored to the brain where, in our minds, those signals would register as a feeling of ‘pain’.

Repeated scientific research over the past 40 years has shown that acupuncture needling activates nerves too (1), including special nerves in the spinal cord. The spinal cord nerves actually block the pain signals that would normally travel to the brain, through release of certain chemicals (see also next section) (2)(3)(4). The result: you feel less pain.

Futhermore, it appears that when a patient undergoes a course of acupuncture care, the pain-relieving effect of acupuncture gets stronger over time, leading to less and less pain for longer and longer periods (White et al,2007).

How Acupuncture Works: Release of ‘Feel-Good’ Chemicals in the Body

Acupuncture has another wonderful effect on our nervous system.

In the presence of pain, acupuncture and electroacupuncture (acupuncture plus mild electrical stimulation) causes the release of pain-relieving chemicals in the brain, and into the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord (5)(6)(Cheng,1989). You may have heard of one example of these chemicals, endorphins, ‘feel-good’ chemicals that create a ‘high’ after physical exercise.

MRI scan showing the complex nerve fibre networks in the brain. It is fibres such as these which release ‘feel good’ chemicals in response to acupuncture (Courtesy Wellcome Trust)

But acupuncture and electroacupuncture cause the release of other ‘feel-good’ chemicals too, including enkephalins, dynorphins and orphanins, as well as serotonin and noradrenaline (7)(11). In the presence of acupuncture all have the effect of suppressing pain signals, thereby reducing your pain levels (Le Bars et al,1989). These chemicals also have the psychological effect of inducing feelings of wellbeing, calm, balance and even euphoria. Release of such ‘neuromodulators’ by the nervous system following acupuncture is now broadly accepted by the mainstream medical community (10).

Acupuncture Has Other Health-promoting Effects on the Body

Recent scientific research has found other positive effects of acupuncture, which extend beyond the nervous system and mere pain relief. These include:

  • Controlled release of naturally-occurring steroids into the bloodstream. These can help to reduce any inflammation present.
  • Alteration in the diameter of blood vessels, close to, and distant from, a site of injury. This increases blood flow, which speeds up healing (Note – blood transports the healing chemicals of the body)(8)(9)(12).
  • The release of chemicals by the nervous system, which bind to, and alter the behaviour of, the white blood cells of our immune system (Lundberg,1999)(13). Acupuncture may therefore boost our immune systems, to help deal with current ill-health, and to make us more resistant to ill-health in the future (Cao,1997).

Our Approach to Acupuncture at Advance Chiropractic & Acupuncture Clinic, Hertford

By now you can probably see why acupuncture is increasingly accepted as a valid therapy by mainstream health professionals in the UK.

At Advance Clinic, Hertford, we want to offer you the best of all worlds. That’s why we offer you acupuncture healthcare which takes account of the 2000-year-old, tried-and-tested traditions of ancient Chinese Medicine. It’s also why we ensure that our acupuncture care is rooted in the evidenced-based practice of modern medicine. We always take account of the latest findings from scientific research.

If you are solely interested in the ancient Chinese approach to acupuncture, we’re more than happy to accommodate you. If you want your acupuncture totally western and science-based, then we can oblige you too. If you want a mix of the two, that’s fine. Our training in both Eastern and Western medicine aims to give you ‘the best of all worlds’.

What to do next

Discover the scientific evidence for or against using acupuncture for a variety of common health complaints by clicking on Science & Acupuncture Part 2.

Or call the clinic now on 01992-535970 or 07973-279389 if you are happy to try acupuncture, or if you need more information and advice.


Additional References

Birch, S J, & Felt, R 1999 Understanding Acupuncture. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Cao, XD 1997 Protective Effect of Acupuncture on Immunosuppression. NIH Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture. Program & Abstracts. Bethseda, MD: National Institutes of Health.

Cheng, R 1989 Neurophysiology of Electroacupuncture Analgesia. In: Pomeranz, B, & Stux, G (eds.) Scientific Bases of Acupuncture. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Le Bars, D, Willer, JC, de Broucker, T, & Villanueva, L 1989 Neurophysiological Mechanisms Involved in the Pain-relieving Effects of Counterirritation and Related Techniques including Acupuncture. In: Pomeranz, B & Stux, G (eds.) Scientific Bases of Acupuncture. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Lundberg, T 1999 Effects of Sensory Stimulation (Acupuncture) on the Circulatory and Immune Systems. In: Ernst, E, White A (eds.) Acupuncture: A Scientific Appraisal. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

White, A, Cummings, M, & Filshie, J 2007 An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

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