THE SCIENCE OF ACUPUNCTURE

The Acupuncture Now Foundation, a leading organization for furthering acupuncture research, recently released its first white paper entitled “ACUPUNCTURE: MORE THAN PAIN MANAGEMENT: A review of research and potential of an ancient therapy in modern times” much to the delight of acupuncturists like myself who like to discuss the crossover of the traditional and ancient medicine with the cutting edge research that is helping to legitimize this medicine in the west. This document, written by ANF’s co-founders Mel Koppelman and Matthew Bauer answers a lot of questions that I frequently hear in my office, and explains, in easily understood language, why acupuncture is so effective at treating so many things.

Following are some sections that I thought were particularly interesting, but I highly suggest downloading the article here and reading it in full!

THE SCIENCE OF ACUPUNCTURE- HOW IT WORKS: Scientists are finding that needling acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system, causing adjustments to body chemistry in the muscles, spinal cord and brain. This process changes the experience of pain and can trigger the release of a wide range of chemicals, including hormones, that influence the body’s own internal regulating system. The result is an improved balance of biochemical factors that can lead to a reduction of various symptoms, enhanced energy, and a better sense of physical and emotional well-being.

PAIN RELIEF: The role of acupuncture as a primary approach for pain relief has never been more relevant. In fact, in response to the North American opioid epidemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued new recommendations to physicians for treating pain. The first of these advises that whenever possible, non-drug and non-opioid drug therapies should be used initially rather than opioids. Non-opioid drugs like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, however, are known to have serious adverse effects, including severe gastrointestinal and liver damage. This dilemma leaves non-drug therapies, such as acupuncture, as the best option for easing pain without these serious or even fatal side effects. Out of all of the options for non-drug therapies, only acupuncture has been shown through extensive animal research to actually stimulate the production of “endogenous opioids” — the body’s own natural opiate-like substances.

FERTILITY: A review of research on acupuncture for women’s reproductive disorders, focusing on both clinical findings and experimental research on acupuncture’s mechanisms of action, found that acupuncture may improve menstrual health and coping for women experiencing delays in becoming pregnant. In particular, acupuncture was shown to regulate uterine and ovarian blood flow (OBF), which can encourage a thicker uterine wall and improve embryo implantation. This effect was thought to take place as a reflex response via the ovarian sympathetic nerves.

DEPRESSION: In a recent meta-analysis, researchers concluded that the efficacy of acupuncture as a stand-alone therapy was comparable to antidepressants in improving clinical response and alleviating symptom severity of major depressive disorder (MDD). Also, acupuncture was superior to antidepressants and waitlist controls in improving both response and symptom severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The incidence of adverse events with acupuncture was significantly lower than antidepressants. The American military, as well as the U.S. Veterans Administration, has been successfully using acupuncture for several years not only for pain control of wounded soldiers -- known as Battlefield Acupuncture -- but also for treating PTSD and depression.

THE LIMITS OF ACUPUNCTURE: The limit of acupuncture is the limit of the body’s resources. In practice, knowing the limits of a therapy that stimulates the body’s own resources can get complicated but roughly falls into two broad categories: disorders beyond the limits of anyone’s resources and disorders beyond a particular person’s ability to self-heal. We used the analogy that the traditional theory of qi flow is like an irrigation system and that a blockage would cause damage from over- and under-watering. Restore the normal flow and the plants return themselves to health naturally – as long as the damage has not gone past the point of no return. Some health disorders can go beyond what the body’s resources could possibly repair, putting them beyond what acupuncture can treat. Many congenital disorders, for example, fall into this category, as would irreversible injuries such as a severed spinal cord.

Other health issues, however, are types that under normal circumstances would self-heal, but may not for a given individual because their resources are not sufficient enough to heal the problem. For example, a small cut on the foot of a diabetic or someone with a vascular disease may resist self-healing. In such cases, the boost acupuncture gives to facilitate the more optimal use of the body’s own resources may or may not be enough to spark natural repair. Whatever category a particular health disorder may fall into, experienced acupuncturists can offer advice on the likelihood of whether acupuncture would be effective, and they will usually recommend a trial series of treatments to test their patient’s responsiveness to the therapy. 

I hope you found this information as helpful as I did! If you have any questions or would like to set up an appointment to see how acupuncture can help you, email me at sarah@fairfieldfamilyacu.com