How does traditional acupuncture work?


On its simplest level, acupuncture involves inserting needles into specific points to influence the flow of qi within the body, balance yin and yang and stimulate the body’s natural healing mechanisms.

The concept of yin and yang relates to the balance of extremes – energised vs. exhausted, hot vs. cold, stressed vs. relaxed – which closely matches the Western concept of homeostasis.


Qi is well understood in the Far East where acupuncture originated. But there is no direct English translation. The nearest definition is ‘vital energy’. You cannot see qi but you can feel it when a traditional acupuncturist inserts a needle into an acupuncture point. Martial arts, qigong, yoga and tai chi are all based on developing an awareness of qi.

When the first acupuncture texts were written in China two thousand years ago, they mapped the flow of qi through a complex web of meridians around the body. Stimulating combinations of points on the network was found to ease symptoms, stop disease and encourage healing.


Qi moves around the body along meridians, or channels. Meridians are not solid, like veins, but are the pathways along which qi travels, much like the way lymph flows around the body. Acupuncture points occur at specific places along the meridians where qi collects and can be easily reached with an acupuncture needle.

Due to its growing popularity and success, medical scientists are studying how acupuncture works in terms of Western physiology. Thanks to modern science we now know that every cell in the body is a living entity that works with other cells to maintain healthy function. Cells communicate through nerve transmission, connective tissue planes, hormones and neurotransmitters. It is now understood that organ systems have their own functional energy circuits. For example, the heart has its own independent electrical charge to keeps it beating.

Nerve impulse transmission

A constant wave of electrical and chemical signals, or impulses, travel to and from the brain, skin, muscles and organs through the nerve cells and fibers that make up the central nervous system (CRS).

Connective tissue planes

Connective tissue, also called fascia, is a network of very fine protein fibres that support, hold, protect and connect muscles, bones and organs. Under the skin, fascia looks like a thin sheet of soft-tissue that contains and connects all the different parts of the body together. Connective tissue planes follow the same pathways as acupuncture meridians.


Hormones are chemicals produced in one part of the body that cause an effect in another part of the body. Many hormones are secreted by glands such as the thyroid, and transported through the blood stream to regulate the activity of other cells and organs, such as the ovaries.


Nerve impulses are transmitted from one nerve cell to another by special chemicals, called neurotransmitters, which are released by nerve cells.

Overlaying the classical description of traditional acupuncture with current medical science, we see that the network of meridians matches clinical dissections of connective tissue planes. Qi flow explains nerve transmissions and the way blood and lymph carry metabolic components such as oxygen, hormones, neurotransmitters and nutrients around the body.
In clinical trials acupuncture has been seen to affect the nervous system by stimulating nerves and connective tissue. And fMRI brain imaging shows that needling a point stimulates the areas of brain associated with the functions attributed to it, such as digestion, pain relief and relaxation.

Acupuncture stimulates the body to produce its own natural chemicals to relieve pain and reduce inflammation, releases neurotransmitters that affect hormones that relax the body and mind, and helps the body heal itself.

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