Acupuncture: How It Works

The most common question I get about acupuncture is, “How does it work?”

When I hear this question most of the time I say that nobody knows exactly. Of course by ‘exactly’ I mean an explanation couched in modern scientific terms.

On the other hand, those of us who practice acupuncture typically have dozens of ways we understand it based on experience. In fact, there are so many different ways to explain it that I couldn’t possibly share them all here.

Instead, I’d like to offer you my best understanding, based on practicing Oriental Medicine for almost 40 years.

First, Some Basics

Let’s start at the beginning, which can be summarized in the equation, balance = health.

Simple enough. Whenever we experience illness of any kind, the most basic way to understand it is to say that there is an imbalance of some kind.

And since even basic survival depends on holding a healthy balance within our body, every internal body system is naturally predisposed to re-establish balance whenever such imbalances occur. This idea is so fundamental that even Western medicine has a term for it, “homeostasis,” which means self-stabilizing or self-balancing.

What Kind of Imbalances Exist?

Chinese medicine divides health imbalances into two general types:

  1. Imbalances caused by a blockage in the system
  2. Imbalances caused by a weakness in the system

Again, fairly simple.

An example of a blockage might be tension resulting from a looming deadline at work creating tight muscles, headaches or indigestion. An example of a weakness might be tiredness after eating caused by inefficient digestion due to many years of poor food choices.

There are also situations, particularly as we get older, where symptoms of pain or illness include both blockage and weakness.

How Acupuncture Addresses These Imbalances

Obviously, before treating any imbalance, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what type of imbalance it is.

Usually it is possible to figure this out by asking questions about when symptoms are better or worse, how long it’s been a problem, and observing various tongue and pulse qualities.

Once we zero in on the underlying condition, acupuncture works to resolve these imbalances in one of three ways:

  1. In the case of blockage in the system, we use points that are effective in opening and unblocking the specific areas involved.
  2. In the case of a weakness in the system, we use points that are effective for drawing greater vitality and strength to the affected areas.
  3. Where there are both types of imbalance happening, we treat the most effective points for each type of imbalance simultaneously.

There are also nuances regarding length of treatment, number of points used and technique that can reinforce the effect of the treatment.

If you want to know more about acupuncture, I can recommend, The Web That Has No Weaver : Understanding Chinese Medicine, by Ted Kaptchuk. Although it also covers topics related to Oriental Medicine in general, it presents some greater details about how acupuncture works. It also has an outstanding appendix with even more detailed information.

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