Acupuncture involves the insertion of single use fine needles at specific points throughout the body. Traditional Chinese medicine describes acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of qi (our body’s vital energy source) throughout the body. When there is a disruption in the flow of qi then pain, illness, and other ailments can occur. Bringing balance to the flow of qi with the use of acupuncture and other techniques, such as cupping, gua sha, and moxibustion, will support the body’s natural healing process. But what really happens when we receive acupuncture?
When you receive acupuncture there are a lot of biochemical mechanisms occurring simultaneously throughout the body. Let’s consider acupuncture to be an isolated micro-trauma to the body. Whenever there is a trauma, no matter how small, a cascade of events occurs to heal the break that is made to the skin when an acupuncture needle is inserted.
Acupuncture increases circulation throughout the body by promoting vasodilation as part of the healing response. This helps blood circulate to the areas that need support and increases blood perfusion in order for them to heal. Acupuncture points can be selected locally to bring circulation to an area of pain or illness, or they can be selected further away to draw swelling and inflammation away from an area.
Acupuncture creates an immune response in the body in order to heal the micro-trauma caused by the needle breaking the skin. White blood cells are stimulated to release cytokines and T-lymphocytes. Local to the needle site there is a slight increase of inflammation, which signals the body to send its immune faculties to that area. Paired with the increased blood perfusion all over, this allows all the good immune cells to heal multiple areas of the body as they flow through the body to the needle site.
Additionally, the nervous system is stimulated to release endorphins. The parasympathetic nervous system is turned on to get us into a “rest and digest” state. This allows the body to relax, increases digestive motility, stimulates digestive enzymes, calms the mind, slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, reduces cortisol, and reduces pain and inflammation. Acupuncture works on the opioid receptors in the brain, which reduces the perception of pain. It also stimulates the release of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, which helps to reduce anxiety and depression.
Lastly, acupuncture helps reduce muscle tension partly by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, but also by engaging the fascia. Fascia is a connective tissue in the body that wraps around every muscle fiber, muscle belly, bone, and organ. It’s like a sweater that connects everything and holds it in place. When even a single thread gets pulled then the whole network can become compromised and lead to chronic pain and tension patterns. When an acupuncture needle is inserted into a muscle it creates a slight pull in the fascia, which engages it to stretch and release tension. This is how a needle in the foot can treat headaches, via meridians that lie on fascial lines. Cupping and gua sha also help to break up adhesions in the fascia, which additionally help to relieve tension patterns.
Isn’t acupuncture amazing?