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Biology 202
2000 First Web Report
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The Affect of Acupuncture on the Nervous System

Claire Walker

Acupuncture is an ancient practice which arouse in China at least two thousand years ago and has been used since then by healers to cure people of their ailments. The art is focused on the Qi (pronounced chee), which is the energy flow through the body. It is believed acupuncture helps to stimulate different areas of energy flow which can help cure pain and sickness(1). Although acupuncture has been around for a long time the validity of the techniques and results has been questioned by many medical specialists. Only fairly recently (mid 20th Century) did this practice come to the United States and it has yet to be accepted as a certifiable medical practice. Even though this is the case, acupuncture has been used to help treat asthma, myopia, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, stroke and obesity, just to name a few (5).

Although the healing affects of acupuncture aren’t fully understood, they have been tied to different physiological changes in the body. As mentioned earlier, the natural energy in the body, Qi, is the focus of the treatment. Qi is connected to the ideas of Yin and Yang, which are two forces that offer balance to life. Yin and Yang have to be together because a disturbance in the relationship leads to disease (1). The image of Yin and Yang demonstrates how they have to be connected, represented by the white and black halves, each with a small circle of the other color. In this belief if the balance of energy in the body is thrown off, then the body becomes weak and sick. In Chinese medicine, when you restore the Qi in the body then health will return.

The practice of acupuncture involves sticking very fine needles at different predetermined spots on the body: 365 points in a human body. These points have been uncovered over thousands of years but can not been seen through dissection or microscopy (6). It is believed that the insertion of needles at these points causes the Qi to move to the point. It is said that when a person is experiencing pain, that there is a blockage in the Qi in the body and that the acupuncture returns the flow to normal (1). Many of the acupuncture points are located only millimeters from peripheral nerves in the skin, others are very close to arteries.

The needles seem to affect the electromagnetic forces in the cells and the body (5). Neurons, fibroblasts and myoblasts are particularly sensitive to electrical currents in the body. It has been shown that cell growth is increased near the cathode and decreased near the anode, showing that the polarity of different cells causes them to be affected differently (5). Another ion that affects the neurons is the Calcium ion concentration in the cell. The ion concentration was measured at acupuncture sites and non-acupuncture sites and the concentration was higher at the acupuncture sites, leading to the belief that the neurons in this area could be more susceptible to electrical impulse since Ca+ contributes to the electrochemical gradient (5).

One theory on the basis for the effectiveness of acupuncture is the gate control theory which says that, through stimulation of the sensory nerves the feelings of pain are blocked by preventing the stimulation of the spinal cord (6). Through studies of MRI’s taken before and during acupuncture it is possible to see stimulation of different areas of the brain through stimulation of different meridians in the body. There is a point on the little toe that, when stimulated, causes activity in the visual cortex of the brain, which shows a definite connection to the nervous system (4). Even the most skeptical doctors agree that acupuncture most likely stimulates the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain relievers.

The use of acupuncture has experienced a great amount of growth in the last 10 years in the United States. It is now being incorporated into Western techniques, in hospitals and clinics. One study was done at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in NYC and worked with cardiothoracic surgery patients. A holistic healer worked with patients pre-operative, during the operation and post-operative. By focusing on the patients energy flow, the healer would calm the patient before going under anesthesia and then would keep the flow of Qi, during the operation, circulating through the body (2). After the surgery the healer used hypnosis and stimulated the movement of energy flow to the heart to help heal the body. The patients involved in the study had lower blood pressure and heart rates, then control group, after heart transplants (2). Most said that they felt relaxed and they claimed that they suffered much less than traditional surgery patients. Since this experiment was so successful many of the patients receiving heart surgery now have the additional care of an acupuncture specialist. More recently, acupuncture has been on the leading edge in the fight on drugs. In Lincoln Hospital Recovery Center, in the Bronx, drug addicted people stand outside at 7:30am waiting for acupuncture treatment (4). The patients receive a few acupuncture needles in points in their ears. They claim that they feel more relaxed and able to cope with the stress of drug withdrawal (4).

There is much data to support the use of acupuncture to help with pain, but many doctors believe that the power of suggestion is making the patient feel better. Even if this is the case, doesn’t this give the doctors an alternative to constantly prescribing new drugs to combat pain and sickness. There is something to be said about the placebo effect. If in our minds we have the power to make our bodies feel better just through beliefs, than why don’t physicians harness this power. There is so much about the human brain that we do not understand. This understanding could lead to less over-medication of patients with chronic conditions.

Some doctors still refuse to believe that acupuncture affects any part of the body except the mind. This would be a hard assumption to break, if it wasn’t for the fact that humans aren’t the only ones to benefit from acupuncture. It is becoming a much more popular field for veterinarians to learn. Acupuncture has many of the same effects on dogs and cats, as it does on humans. Although not every dog can be completely cured, most animals enjoy a life with less (apparent) pain and become “ their old selves”(3).

I work in a veterinary clinic where one of the doctors has been certified for treating patients with acupuncture. The cases that we have seen are amazing. From older dogs with arthritis, to dogs with slipped disks and even a dog with a genetic malformation which made walking very painful, I have seen them be able to walk, run, play and the owners are usually amazed at the effect of the acupuncture treatment. Before working at the veterinary clinic I did not know a lot about acupuncture, but I was a little skeptical of the way it worked. I can say that I fully believe that acupuncture affects the nervous system, because you can not claim the “placebo affect” when dogs are involved. Many dogs are nervous during the acupuncture session and no dog says that they want to have tiny needles placed all over their body.

I believe that the mind of the dog is not overriding the actual affects of the treatment. It is not uncommon to have clients come into the veterinary clinic after one treatment and say that the dog was acting years younger again. The dogs are suddenly able to climb the stairs (something they haven’t done for months) and stand to eat their dinner. Before the treatment they are often in so much pain that they will lie down whenever they can, which includes when they are eating. It is great to see how happy the owners are to have their “old” dog back. I whole-heartedly believe that acupuncture stimulates the nerves in the surface of the skin causing the increased flow of blood to the area, which helps loosen up stiff muscles and joints, and the endorphins released at the site dull any other pain that is left. Even with this explanation, there is still something going on in body that no one can explain.

The idea of the box that we have constructed can incorporate the process of acupuncture. Acupuncture needles stimulate the sensory neurons in the surface of the skin and so the acupuncture needles are the initiators of the input mechanism, which helps direct the flow of hormones and nervous system signals through the body. The output of the box for the acupuncture is the relief from the pain in the body, but the part that is not understood is what goes on inside the box. How does the input lead to the desired output?

Acupuncture is becoming more popular for many different medical specialties in the United States. I don’t believe that it will ever be possible to say what acupuncture actually does for the body, since the mind is unable to be fully understood, but we do know that the nervous system plays a big part in improving circulation in the area, as well as relieving pain. It is hard for Western educated doctors to accept the benefits of holistic care, because acupuncture does not rely on the use of direct medications or traditional diagnostic procedures. Western doctors will have to become trained in the practice of acupuncture because alternative healing practices are becoming more popular in the United States. People are ready to turn to these practices because they are less invasive and offer more relief.

WWW Sources

1)The History of Acupuncture

2)Energy Work for Cardiothoracic Surgery Patients

3)U.S. News and World Report - Vets try to needle animals back to health, I got the info from the Magazine and not the web. p.59. (December 18th, 2000)

4)U.S. News and World Report - Acupuncture can work and it's not just wishful thinking, I got the info from the Magazine and not the web pp.58-60. (December 18th, 2000)

5)The Mechanism of Acupuncture

6)The scientific basis of acupuncture

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