In spite of thousands of years of practical results, nobody can say for sure exactly how acupuncture works.
Ongoing research seeks to uncover more information about what conditions acupuncture helps as well as the mechanism by which it helps the body heal. Both were goals of the recent SPINE (Stimulating Points to Investigate Needling Efficacy) trials conducted by researchers from the Group Health Center for Health Studies.
The SPINE study compared 3 different ways of treating low back pain with acupuncture as well as conventional medical treatment alone. The three methods included individualized treatments based on a specific diagnosis, a standardized treatment done the same for everyone and what was called “simulated acupuncture” done by stimulating points without breaking the skin. The simulated acupuncture was done by pressing on points with the tip of a toothpick.
After receiving a total of 8 treatments (twice a week for three weeks, then once a week for four weeks), participants returned periodically over the course of a year to report how well they were doing.
Interestingly, the results from all 3 ways of stimulating acupuncture points exceeded the results from conventional medical treatment alone. Because the non-penetrating stimulation of points was as effective as actual acupuncture, researchers wondered what could possibly be going on.
To those of us who practice acupuncture every day, these results aren’t surprising. We know the method of stimulating the points (using needles, finger pressure, tapping, magnets, heat, etc.) is often less relevant than the fact of stimulating them.
Also, that all three approaches to stimulating points were effective reinforces the idea that often just stimulating the correct energy channel (meridian) in the body triggers a positive response.
Does that mean just stimulating any points will help?
Most practitioners would say not. Practically speaking, the best results from acupuncture for low back pain or any other condition come from stimulating the right points.
For example, some people respond very well to treatments focused on points in the area of the problem. For low back pain, points in and near the low back are very effective.
By contrast, there are other people who respond best to treatments using points in other parts of the body away from the problem area. In the low back pain example these might be on wrists and ankles, hands and feet.
The best test of which approach (or combination of approaches) is best comes from noticing the immediate degree of improvement. In other words, done correctly, acupuncture should result in a noticeable lessening of pain or other symptoms either immediately or at least within a day or two of treatment. When it doesn’t, often a different approach to using acupuncture will be more effective.
Burke, E. NIH acupuncture report. All Natural Muscular Development. 35(6):34, 1998.