How Does Acupuncture Work and What Does it Help With?

How does it work, and what can it help with are two of the most common questions we get asked about acupuncture. Acupuncture is most well known for its ability to reduce pain, alleviate stress, and improve your mood. In truth, it does so much more, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s dive into the WHY and the HOW behind this treatment to get a better sense of what it can do for you. 

The History of Acupuncture and Basics of Acupuncture Theory

Acupuncture has been around for a long time, roughly 2-3 thousand years, and possibly even longer than that. It is most commonly known as a Chinese medicine treatment but has strong roots in many other East Asian countries and cultures.

You can read more about the history of Chinese medicine here, but the important thing to note is that a system of medicine that has been practiced widely for thousands of years has proven benefit behind it. Acupuncture entered the American mainstream in the mid-1970s and has been growing rapidly ever since. Westerners are relatively new to this treatment, but popularity continues to spread as people experience the many benefits that acupuncture has to offer them. 

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine needles into the body, into specific points chosen for their therapeutic benefit.

The practice of Acupuncture is based in Eastern medical theory that acknowledges the existence of the acupuncture meridians. The meridians are described as pathways that cover the surface of the body, and communicate as a network by means of a vital energy that flows within and between them. This vital energy is described as Qi (pronounced Chee) and the goal of acupuncture is to promote the smooth flow of Qi in the meridians, by removing any blocks where the energy is not flowing smoothly.

Now if you’re asking yourself what the heck that means, or shaking your head and mumbling that you don’t believe in “energy” stick with me for a minute. 

Translating Acupuncture Theory Into Western Language

The concept of Qi can be applied to a lot of things that we can’t see with our eyes or touch with our hands. It can apply to a lot of bodily processes that are more abstract in the way we perceive and measure them. A great example is the air you are breathing. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there. Or electricity for that matter. You can’t see it, but every time you flip a light switch or turn on your TV it’s working for you.

The concept of Qi relates to many cellular and microscopic processes that are constantly happening in the body, whether we can see the, or not. There are some more widely agreed upon mechanisms for acupuncture, and some areas where the research is rapidly evolving. 

Potential Mechanisms of Acupuncture Explain Its Effects

  1. Research has shown that acupuncture helps your brain release more of it’s own natural pain relieving substances, such as endorphins, and beta-endorphins (1, 2, 3)
  2. Acupuncture increases circulation of blood and oxygen in the local tissue rto relieve pain, and stimulate faster healing. (4,5,6,7)
  3. Some brain imaging studies indicate that acupuncture works to partially block the transmission of pain signals to the brain. This is especially significant for those with chronic pain conditions where the body is sending frequent, excessive pain signals to the brain, resulting in frequent pain, despite no actual injury being present (8)
  4. Acupuncture is thought to reduce symptoms in chronic inflammatory conditions by reducing the production of inflammation promoting substances by the immune system. This has implications for many types of chronic inflammatory conditions such as asthma, allergies, IBS, IBD, chronic pain conditions and more. (9, 10)
  5. Growing areas of research are looking at the results of acupuncture for specific conditions. A recent study at the University of California, Irvine is looking to explain how several of these mechanisms work together to lower blood pressure in patients with mild to moderate hypertension. (11)

How Do I know if Acupuncture Can Help Me?

We get a lot of questions about specific conditions and whether or not acupuncture can help with them. The general answer is that acupuncture is helpful for a wide variety of conditions, and is likely helpful for your situation.

While not intended to be a substitute for having a great primary care physician, acupuncture can treat many common ailments for which you might go to your general medicine practitioner. This includes, but is not limited to: injuries, respiratory illnesses, chronic pain, fatigue, sleep disruption, mood disorders, low energy, poor digestive function, and so much more. 

As you may have figured out from the mechanisms listed above, acupuncture is working on many systems at once. Someone once described it to me as “the ultimate in wellness multitasking” because it works to treat the nervous system, immune system, circulatory system, and endocrine system in a single treatment. Not many treatments can say the same. 

If you are still unsure if acupuncture can help you, we recommend booking a FREE 15-minute consultation through our website to ask questions about your specific health needs. 



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  2. Jiang Y, He X, Yin X, Shen Y, Fang J. Anti-in ammatory and synovial-opioid system effects of electroacupuncture intervention on chronic pain in arthritic rats. Zhongguo Zhen Jiu. 201; 35: 917-921.
  3.  Hsieh YL, Hong CZ, Liu SY, Chou LW, Yang CC. Acupuncture at distant myofascial trigger spots enhances endogenous opioids in rabbits: a possible mechanism for managing myofascial pain. Acupunct Med. 2016; 34: 302-309.
  4. Kusayanagi H, Ishikawa S, Tajika Y, Moue T, Sunagawa M, et al. In uence of Electroacupuncture Stimulation on Nitric Monoxide Production in Vascular Endothelial Cells in Rats. In Vivo. 2015; 29: 679-685.
  5. Tsuchiya M, Sato EF, Inoue M, Asada A. Acupuncture enhances generation of nitric oxide and increases local circulation. AnesthAnalg. 2007; 104: 301-307.
  6. Skorupska E, Rychlik M, Samborski W. Intensive vasodilatation in the sciatic pain area after dry needling. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2015; 15: 72.
  7. Wang SY, Zhang D, Tang LM, Li SY, Wen M, et al. Effects of Electroacupuncture Stimulation at “Zusanli” Acupoint on Hepatic NO Release and Blood Perfusion in Mice. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015.
  8. Donkin JJ, Turner RJ, Hassan I, Vink R. Substance P in traumatic brain injury. Prog Brain Res. 2007; 161: 97-109
  9. Lim HD, Kim MH, Lee CY, Namgung U. Anti-In ammatory Effects of Acupuncture Stimulation via the Vagus Nerve. 2016; 11: e0151882.
  10. McDonald JL, Smith PK, Smith CA, Changli Xue C, Golianu B, et al. Mucosal Immunology Research Group. Effect of acupuncture on house dust mite speci c IgE, substance P, and symptoms in persistent allergic rhinitis. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2016; 116: 497-505.
  11. Department of Medicine, Susan-Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine, University of California, Irvine, California 92697, USA. Neural mechanism of electroacupuncture hypotensive Effects. Auton Neurosci. 2010 Oct 28;157(1-2):24-30. doi: 10.1016/j.autneu.2010.03.015. Epub 2010 May 5.