How Does Acupuncture Work?

acupuncture handling needles

The simple answer to how acupuncture works is this.  When a point on the body is stimulated by mechanical pressure, a signal is sent along the nerve from that point to the brain.  The result is a release of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters that convey particular messages to the rest of the body. What a message says depends on which nerve branch was targeted and in what manner it was stimulated.


Experiments using fMRI scans have shown that acupuncture stimulation of a point on the foot, known in Traditional Chinese Medicine theory to treat eye problems, will divert brain activity and blood flow to the optical nerve.  Other experiments have shown that anti-inflammatory compounds are released at the site of needle insertion to give a pain relieving effect.

But what about the overall effects that a patient experiences with every treatment such as better sleep, better mood, more energy, improved memory and concentration?   These are the effects of acupuncture on the brain.  Rather than asking does acupuncture work, scientists like myself are now asking, how does acupuncture work?  The complete answer to this question requires a more in depth scientific analysis of how the brain functions.

In my research, I strive to understand how electrical systems work.  In the human body, the heart and the brain are electrical systems.  Even though these systems are enclosed in the body, the body itself is called an ‘open’ system because it’s continually exchanging energy with the environment.  We ingest food energy and release heat energy.  We react to our surroundings using information gathered from our sense organs.

Our system must change, react and evolve from second to second but at the same time it must maintain stability.  For instance, all humans have about the same internal temperature all of the time through day and night, summer and winter, exertion and rest.  It is the brain that is managing this continually evolving stream of data coming from the body and passing instructions back out to the body so that a stable, healthy state is maintained throughout our lives.

Snow rolling after a sauna

Snow-rolling after a sauna. Our brains keep our bodies in balance to have the same internal temperature whether we are in a hot sauna or rolling in the snow.

We know a lot about individual nerves and their structure and functioning but when it comes to the millions of nerves in the brain, all bundled together, organizing masses of information constantly flowing in and out, we still know quite little. One thing we do know is that the brain and heart use a type of mathematics very common to most natural systems called ‘chaos dynamics’.

‘Chaos’ in the mathematical sense is neither random nor completely regular. It’s the sweet spot in between. It allows the body to maintain a preferred pattern of behaviour in tandem with the continually changing environment. Living things use this ‘chaos’ to operate because they want to stay the same but also to adapt and change as necessary.


Lorenz equations

The graph on the left is similar to an EEG or ECG heart monitor. The heartbeat varies slightly from one beat to the next. It appears to be completely irregular with no pattern until it is analysed using chaos mathematics. Then the pattern (right) reveals itself as a controlled but flexible behaviour. If the heartbeat becomes too regular or too random, the pattern disappears.


We know ‘chaos’ is used by the brain but what scientists still need to discover is how this critical functional state is achieved and then controlled by the body.

After a nights sleep, our patterns of brain waves settle right into the sweet spot of organised chaos (see (b) above). It’s in this state that we can remember and calculate and think most clearly. As the day wears on, we fall out of this zone. By the late afternoon or evening, most people say they can’t think straight. If we are drained by stress or illness, it gets more difficult for our brains to get into the critical zone even after a nights sleep.


Signaling along the spinal cord has been shown to be altered by acupuncture

Signaling along the spinal cord has been shown to be altered by acupuncture. The acu-points have certain key properties that are needed to control ‘chaos’ in an electrical system like the brain. After a treatment, the pattern of the brain signals is pulled tightly into that critical region of organised chaos where optimal performance is supported.

Currently, neuroscientists are searching for the mysterious mechanism that is used by the body to tune the brain into the critical state of ‘chaos’. The acupuncture points play a crucial role in this task and needle stimulation of these points allows fine tuning of the system to optimum functioning. That is why we feel clear-headed, relaxed and alert with every acupuncture treatment.



Blog written by Clare Foley, acupuncture
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