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  • Writer's pictureDr. Monica L. Hilton, DACM, LAc

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Patients often ask this question just as their needles are inserted. There are different theories to explain how acupuncture works. Let's discuss it from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) vs. Western medicine point of view. We'll start with a quick review of acupuncture.

Acupuncture includes inserting fine, hair-like needles into specific sites along the body. These sites, called acupuncture points, are where qi gathers and transports to the body's surface. According to Chinese medicine theory, qi (pronounced "chee") is the vital force behind the body's many functions. Qi maintains the body's healing abilities and flows through the body via pathways called meridians or channels. When qi flows freely, the body is healthy, but when its flow becomes imbalanced or blocked, it can lead to illness, pain, or weakness.

There are 12 organ channels and two additional channels that run along the body's midline. The purpose of the 14 meridians is to transport qi and blood throughout the body. There are 361 classical acupuncture points distributed along the fourteen meridians and numerous extra and a-shi (ouch) points. Each acupuncture point has a distinct therapeutic action and indication for use. In treatment, acupuncture points are selected based on the patient's symptoms and diagnosis according to TCM theory. Points are often combined based on their synergistic nature and the desired clinical effect. When acupuncture needles are inserted, they activate the function(s) of the selected points and stimulate the body's qi. This helps restore an even flow of qi and blood throughout the body, returning it to its natural balance.

From a Western medicine point of view, acupuncture works by initiating a healing response from the body. According to the Gate Control Theory of 1965, acupuncture works by blocking the transmission of pain signals to the brain, thereby altering the perception of pain. When an acupuncture needle is inserted, it prompts the body's immune system to release different chemicals that dilate the blood vessels to reduce blood pressure, stimulate or inhibit the contraction of smooth muscles, and promote blood circulation. It also prompts the body to release endorphins or your "feel-good hormones" that lessen the perception of pain. Through research, acupuncture has been found to stimulate the immune system, promote blood circulation, improve digestion, calm the nervous system, regulate hormones, and reduce the sensation of pain.

Here are a few more frequently asked questions about acupuncture:

Does acupuncture hurt?

Unlike hypodermic needles, acupuncture needles are very fine and flexible, about the size of a human hair, producing little to no sensation. Everyone experiences acupuncture differently, so while some patients feel nothing when the needle is inserted, others may have a brief moment of discomfort. Some patients compare the feeling to getting a mosquito bite. During acupuncture treatments, patients usually experience what practitioners call a qi sensation, which may feel like a dull ache or a heavy, moving sensation throughout the body.

What’s inside the needles?

Nothing! Acupuncture needles are solid needles unlike the hollow, hypodermic needles used to give vaccines or draw blood.

Are acupuncture needles safe?

Yes. Hilton Acupuncture only uses pre-sterilized, single-use needles made of surgical stainless steel. After treatment, needles are discarded as medical waste. Acupuncture needles are never reused or shared between patients. In addition, our practitioner is certified in Clean Needle Technique by the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (CCAOM), which established guidelines and standards for the clean and safe clinical practice of acupuncture.

Thanks for stopping by! You can review more frequently asked questions about TCM and acupuncture here. Until next time, we wish you good health and happiness. 😊


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