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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

The Needle Treatment

Laura Wolfe

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese method of "encouraging the body to promote natural healing and improve bodily function" (1) that dates back as far as 4,700 years ago. Now for the past 25 years it has appeared in the U.S. as a popular form of alternative medicine, and it is "a licensed and regulated HealthCare profession in about half the states in the U.S." (3). It is most often called upon for problems such as lower back pain, migraines, arthritis, and additional non-fatal aches and pains. Some people say it works, others are still skeptical. Since this method does not seem to be based on "actual science", is it merely a placebo effect? Can a medical practice dated nearly five millenniums ago still prove to be valid?

When acupuncture was created, some of the medical concepts it employed were relatively new; there were not many falsified stories for it to build off from. In fact, "acupuncture is said to have been theorized... by Shen Nung, the father of Chinese medicine, who also documented his theories on the heart, circulation, and pulse over 400 years before Europeans had any concept about them" (1). Since then, Europeans and Asians alike have encountered centuries of medical dilemmas and successes. Over time, hypotheses emerge and are either disproved or continue to live on as part of scientific discourse and medical practice. For this reason, most old-fashioned treatments no longer hold true when compared to methods cultivated within the great wealth of knowledge attributed to medicine today not because we are smarter now or are more civilized, but because the field of medicine has accumulated so much more experience and has improved methods to be "less wrong" countless times. So, why has acupuncture not been bettered or disproved after all this time? Is it perhaps a perfect form or treatment? Probably not. But, let us look more closely at the acupuncture treatment to understand its unlikely longevity in the medical world.

First, the patient must relax in order to prevent fainting or nausea; the most common side-effects of acupuncture, often due to nervousness. The practitioner will insert fine, hair-like needles into the body "at specific points shown as effective in the treatment of specific health problems. These points have been mapped by the Chinese over a period of two thousand years" (2). The needles go about to one inch deep, depending on the age and size of the patient and the location of pain on the body (2). The insertion of needles is sometimes accompanied by "heat or electrical stimulation at these specific [acupuncture] points" (1).

The process is relatively painless when done correctly. The patient "should feel some cramping, heaviness, distention, tingling, or electric sensation... In Chinese, acupuncture is bu tong, painless. Some Western cultures may categorize these sensations as types of pain. In any case, if you experience any discomfort, it is usually mild" (2). However, if the patient experiences a burning sensation, sharp pain, or if s/he is too nervous and feels uncomfortable with the procedure is it suggested that s/he let the physician know immediately. After researching this procedure and hearing over and over that it should be painless, the image of patients being used as human pin-cushions does not seem quite so frightening...

But why stick needles into someone? What is the point (no pun intended)? "The popular classical Chinese explanation on how acupuncture works states that channels of energy run in regular patterns through our body and over its surface. This energy force is known as Qi (pronounced Chee)" (1). The channels of Qi, as well as Xue (meaning blood) are said to "cover the body somewhat like the nerves and blood vessels do" (2). "The channels... are called Meridians, which are compared to rivers flowing to the body to irrigate and nourish the tissues" (1). Pain is created when these Meridians are blocked like a dam in a river causing backup and disharmony. The theory is that by stimulating certain points on the body, a natural flow of Qi and Xue will return and the pain will have been treated. "In this way, acupuncture regulates and restores the harmonious energetic balance of the body. In Chinese there is a saying, 'There is no pain if there is free flow; if there is pain, there is no free flow'" (2).

At first glace for a person of the Western world, this explanation may sound more like fantasy than medical fact. So, what is another, perhaps more "scientific" explanation?
"Western medicine's view is that the placement of acupuncture needles at specific pain points releases endorphins and opioids, the body's natural painkillers, and perhaps immune system cells as well as neurotransmitters and neurohormones in the brain. Research has shown that glucose and other bloodstream chemicals become elevated after acupuncture" (3).
This seems to support the Chinese blood-flood theory, or at least show that perhaps acupuncture is not simply a placebo. Something does happen to the body during this procedure, which is amazing considering it was theorized 4,700 years ago.

Patients come out of the treatment with mixed results, however. It depends on the skill and training of the practitioner, and it also depends on the patient. Often two people will have the same injury and receive treatment on the same day at the same clinic, but one will come out feeling better while the other has experienced no change. Obviously this is not a perfect treatment, but when it accomplishes something it seems to only help, never hurt.

However, there are some dangers to acupuncture when one uses it as a replacement for new medical treatments without understanding the true purpose of acupuncture it alleviates non-fatal bodily pains, not cancer or any organic diseases. As one scientist warns:
"When sick people become irrational and fanatical about acupuncture, or about any other non-conventional form of medical treatment, resulting in the delay in diagnosis and treatment of their illness by a physician, this could lead to unnecessary increase in the risk, complications and mortality. Some preventable deaths due to delayed diagnosis and treatment have been reported among patients who insisted on nothing else but on acupuncture or on alternative medicine in the treatment of their organic illnesses" (1).
In other words, acupuncture should not be relied upon as some sort of medical miracle. It is an alternative treatment that is sometimes prescribed for the right reasons.

A lot of mystery still surrounds acupuncture, especially from a Western point of view. It has been used for some seemingly unlikely purposes; to cure smoking or alcoholism, to aid with psychological problems, to cure kidney failure or asthma. In China, it has even been used in animals "to turn the fetus into a normal position in the womb" (4). Altogether, acupuncture has withstood the test of time; not necessarily the test of criticism. The procedure seems to work sometimes, and so it has not been falsified. It seems very beautiful, ancient and creative, and so it is left alone as a non-conventional medical alternative. But there should be more studies done on the subject, especially to prevent people from depending on it because of a desire to be all-natural. This is not reason enough to abandon centuries of experience and of scientists getting it "less wrong". Acupuncture is a possible treatment but not a perfect one.


1) Heart to Heart with Philip S. Chua, M.D. an overview of acupuncture, its origins, and its current uses and misuses.

2)The layman's guide to acupuncture. A wonderfully descriptive site, but biased in favor of acupuncture. Does not include downsides.

3) Acupuncture for children includes some general information about acupuncture.

4)Animal acupuncture highlights a few uncommon uses for acupuncture.

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