Well, to start, it has nothing to do with chakras.
If you’ve overheard a conversation about acupuncture, you’ve probably heard the word “qi” being used as a synonym for “energy”. Unfortunately, this was a mistranslation from the early 1900’s. We now know that “qi” translates to “air” or “oxygen”. Hemoglobin (blood cells) carry air or oxygen through the body. When the body has a renewed uptake of oxygen to cells we heal, adapt, and detox optimally. Acupuncture assists the circulation of this highly oxygenated blood to intentional locations in the body to create healing.
We can therefore change our understanding of acupuncture from an “energetic” practice (which it is not), to a physical practice because acupuncture creates physical changes at a biological level. This goes to show that we need to change the way we talk about acupuncture to understand how it really works.
So what evidence do we have to explain how acupuncture works? This is a topic that has been extensively researched for over 60 years. While we have so much more to learn about the mechanisms of acupuncture and the human body, we do have three main evidence-based mechanisms that explain the effectiveness of acupuncture.
The first evidence-based mechanism is the accessing of neural pathways from acupuncture point stimulation, which disrupts the midbrain pain signal to the spinal cord, in turn deactivating the pain centers in the brain. Acupuncture activates a number of the body’s own opioids as well as improving the brain’s sensitivity to synthetic opioids. A number of other biochemicals involved in pain reduction have been found to be released or regulated by acupuncture stimulation, including ATP and adenosine, GABA and substance P. In the hands of an experienced practitioner of both acupuncture and electro-acupuncture, we can achieve the release of these biochemical substances using different frequencies during the treatment.
Another evidence-based mechanism that proves the effectiveness of acupuncture is vasodilation. By targeting certain areas we can vasodilate, or expand blood flow, increasing the efficiency of blood flow in the deep veins. Venous pressure is the pressure pushing the blood through the veins back to the heart. Tissue pressure is the pressure exerted against the deep veins by the tissue surrounding them. So if there is an injury or inflammation, the swollen tissue can press against deep veins, impeding blood flow back to the heart. The perforating veins offer an alternative route for blood flow back to the heart. If blood is having trouble flowing through the deep veins in a particular region of the body, blood can travel through the perforating veins to the superficial veins and then back to the heart.
The third evidence-based mechanism is the reactivation of muscles. Motor points exist in all muscles and much of the dysfunction in muscles is caused by muscle motor inhibition. This is when the muscle that has either been injured, over-used, or under-conditioned stops firing, or is simply not doing its share of the work. That muscle’s defense mechanism is triggered, and that defense is to stop working. Now, small muscles in the area must do the work of the muscle that has turned off, which causes pain. The best example of this is the all-too-common lower back pain. Using thorough muscle testing we can identify the muscles that stopped working (which are usually the glutes) and use acupuncture to reactivate those muscles.
In the context of ineffective and often dangerous pharmaceutical options for pain, acupuncture represents a safe and effective alternative with a long track-record of successful use. We simply need to shift the conversation about how acupuncture works from a traditional energetic view to that of an evidence-based view.
So the next time you overhear acupuncture being described as “energetic”, make sure to chime in with your three evidence-based ways acupuncture really works.