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Acupuncture's Mysticism United With Science

Lauren McD's picture


      Acupuncture, originating from over 2,500 years ago in China, was originally only interpreted as a mysticism of Chinese culture. (5) Now, with the advantage of modern science, we are able to further interpret acupuncture’s noted success in terms of its relation to the nervous system. Constantly viewed with skepticism, studies have enough ‘proof’ of acupuncture’s success that still encourage people today to approach acupuncture therapy with hope of curing or alleviating various symptoms. (3) Not all diseases are affected by acupuncture (5), but it can be used to reduce pain or even as a viable anesthesia. (2) While there is no true consensus in the scientific community that acupuncture is effective, more research on this topic will be able to enlighten people’s understanding of the nervous system. (5)

      Acupuncture is the treatment of various medical symptoms by injection of thin needles into specific points in the skin. The needles are solid, which means they do not inject or withdraw any material to or from the body. (2) Since there is no exact science for the procedure to relieve certain symptoms (4), the acupuncturist decides the type of needles used, the depth at which they are entered, and the period in which they are left in the body. (2) Acupuncture is considered successful if the patient experiences a sensation of ‘numbness, tingling, or warmth’ at the location of insertions. (3) Acupuncture therapy is also commonly used with application of heat or electricity to the skin points, instead of needle insertions. (1,5) Against intuition, acupuncture is meant to be painless. (2) The specific points on the skin that are accessed relate to the mysticism of the ancient Chinese. Today there have been over 2,000 acupuncture points identified on the skin, as well as 20 meridians. (5)

      In a time when the body’s functions were explained by observations of the outside world, the ancient Chinese created an internal system based on something they understood: water. It may seem like a simple idea now, but much of life in ancient times was based upon studying water systems for survival. The Chinese used the water systems to create a theory for the inner workings of the body: the fluid of life is called ‘qi,’ and the rivers it flows through are called ‘meridians.’ (3) Meridians are channels extending to the fingers and toes that are associated with specific internal organs. (1,2) Meridians, like water systems, can be blocked, preventing the flow of qi. In order to restore the natural flow of qi, the blockage has to be removed. Meridians have certain accessible points on the skin that are like narrow passages of water. They are the most likely places for the passage of qi to be blocked; through acupuncture, these blockages are eradicated. (3) Originally, this new network was developed independent of the nervous system and the circulatory system. (2) While no one has discovered any neural pathways that correspond with the meridians, neuroscience has theorized the actual functions in the body that can explain acupuncture’s beneficial effects. (3)

      While acupuncture is still not fully understood, it has been known to reduce pain in specific areas. The most accepted belief of how acupuncture affects the body is through stimulation of the nervous system. The nervous system controls the emission of biochemicals, which affect cells throughout the body. (3) The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are activated by stimulation of the nervous system, which secrete neurotransmitters and hormones that are associated with the reduction of pain. Specifically, substances such as opioid peptides (5) and endorphins (3,4,5) are secreted, which are known to decrease pain levels. (5) In a particular study, neurotransmitters were found at punctured sites, further supporting this statement. (3) A widely known theory named the ‘gate-control theory of pain’ is another feasible explanation of how acupuncture affects the body. While somewhat outdated now, the scientific community still does not understand how pain is registered by the nervous system; therefore this theory may have some validity. According to the theory, there are two types of nerves: fine and thick. The finer nerves transmit the pain signal to the spinal cord, where the signal is eventually sent to the brain. The thick nerves inhibit the thin nerves from sending this message. The signals from the thick nerves arrive at the brain first and ‘close the gate’ for any other signals from the fine nerves to be received by the brain. In relation to acupuncture, the needles stimulate the thick nerves, so pain signals from other internal symptoms are not accepted. (1) Another theory, the nerve reflex theory, suggests that stimulation at specific points causes a change in the diameter of blood and lymph vessels, activating endocrine and immune systems. Instead of directly releasing the body’s natural pain killer through stimulation of the nervous system, this theory states that the blood and lymph vessels respond first. (4) It is still questioned why certain points on the skin have this effect over other points. However, one study found that acupuncture points have a decrease in electricity resistance, distinguishing them from other points on the skin. (1)

      Even with modern day science, acupuncture’s true effect on the body is still not well understood. It seems, from the dates of various sources, that most research on acupuncture was conducted in the 1970’s. While neuroscience seems to be less interested in unearthing the mysteries of acupuncture today, further research into the topic could help humanity understand the nervous system to a greater extent. It would enlighten us on how the body registers the feeling of ‘pain.’ Any information regarding this subject could help scientists discover new, effective ways to reduce pain. Perhaps if we knew how acupuncture truly affected the nervous system, we would be able to utilize it, or some variation of it, to affect more diseases or alleviate symptoms to a greater degree. On the other hand, if further research into acupuncture reveals no relation to the nervous system, we would still understand neuroscience more. Discovering acupuncture’s true effect on the body would open doors to the mysteries of the nervous system controlling our body. A practice invented from mysticism thousands of years ago still mystifies modern science today.




1) Armstrong, Margaret E. "Acupuncture." American Journal of Nursing 72.9 (1972): 1582-1588.

2) Bowers, John Z. "Acupuncture." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 117.3 (1973): 143-151.

3) Dharmananda, Subhuti. “An Introduction to Acupuncture and How It Works.” 1996. Institute for Traditional Medicine. 29 Mar 2010 <>

4) “How Does Acupuncture Work?” 29 Mar 2010 <>

5) Zanardi, Paulo. “Acupuncture: An Ancient Treatment for a Current Problem.” 2004. Spine Health. 29 Mar 2010 <>



Paul Grobstein's picture

acupuncture and western science

"A practice invented from mysticism thousands of years ago still mystifies modern science today."

Maybe it wasn't invented "from mysticism" but rather, like western science, from empirical observations of what worked?  And it is only "mysticism" from the perspective of western science, with the stories of western science sounding equally "mystic" to the many people who in both past and present don't view acupuncture and qi skeptically?  Maybe we're dealing here with two different ways of "seeing"?