Originally stemming from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture involves the insertion of hair-thin needles into specific points across the human body. And no, it’s not a torture technique. It’s a millennia-old healing method that practitioners use to treat ailments from chronic pain and infertility to depression and addiction.
Wondering how a needle prick can improve your health? You’re not alone. Western doctors aren’t sure how acupuncture works either. They have, however, started to incorporate the modality at a significant rate, especially for pain management.
When the rampant prescription of pharmaceutical painkillers culminated in a “national emergency” of opioid abuse, medical researchers flocked to acupuncture in their search for safer pain treatments, and promising results have emerged. For instance, this state-commissioned study concluded that acupuncture is a legitimate way to alleviate chronic pain, yielding “significant improvements” in subjects’ overall well-being.
The American College of Physicians Clinical Practice Guideline, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health have all, in some way, endorsed acupuncture. But even with such an official array of supporters, acupuncture is still considered “alternative” because the Western medical community hasn’t proven how, why or if it works.
According to TCM, acupuncture restores vitality by stimulating the flow of “qi” (pronounced “chee”) and by balancing the forces of masculine (yang) and feminine (yin) energies across the body’s meridian lines. It’s no surprise that allopathic medicine hasn’t adopted this philosophy. But modern science does have a few hypotheses concerning the mechanics of acupuncture. These theories, which use terms like “neural pathways” rather than “meridian lines,” largely surround the idea that peripheral nerve stimulation signals the central nervous system to initiate beneficial biochemical changes. Specifically relating to pain management, an example of such biochemical changes involves the release of beta-Endorphins, your body’s built-in opioids. Other explanations say that acupuncture helps heal the body by mobilizing circulation and reducing inflammation.
Acupuncture is tricky to test under the empirical model of modern science, but that won’t stop its Western market from growing. That said, acupuncture represents an inflection point in medicine: where an ancient practice collides with modern practices and research methodologies. The tension between these two forces will hopefully cultivate ingenuity, pushing healthcare’s best and brightest to continue to improve the system.