Acupuncture has been an essential part of medicine for thousands of years in the East, yet even as it catches on in the West, physicians in this part of the world have yet to figure out exactly how this ancient technique works. Whatever the mechanisms, acupuncture does appear to work. Scientific studies are offering real evidence that it can ease pain and treat ailments ranging from osteoarthritis to migraine headaches.

The technique of acupuncture involves placing hair-thin needles in various pressure points (called acupoints) throughout the body. Stimulating these points is believed to promote the body's natural healing capabilities and enhance its function.

East Meets West

Two very different theories exist as to how acupuncture works. According to Chinese philosophy, the body contains two opposing forces: yin and yang. When these forces are in balance, the body is healthy. Energy, called "qi" (pronounced "chee"), flows like rivers along pathways, or meridians, throughout the body. This constant flow of energy keeps the yin and yang balanced. However, the flow of energy can sometimes be blocked, like water getting stuck behind a dam. A disruption in the flow of energy can lead to illness.


needles entering the skin
Photo courtesy of Dreamstime
Acupuncture needles entering the skin. See more acupuncture pictures.

Approximately 2,000 different acupuncture points lie along the body's meridians. The idea behind acupuncture is that stimulating these points with acupuncture needles or pressure relieves obstructions in the flow of energy, enabling the body to heal.

In the Western view, acupuncture likely works by stimulating the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to release chemicals called neurotransmitters and hormones. These chemicals dull pain, boost the immune system and regulate various body functions.