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Theories on the Effects of Acupuncture on the Nervous System

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Theories on the Effects of Acupuncture on the Nervous System

Emma Christensen

Despite the growing evidence that many ailments respond positively to acupuncture, much of the Western World remains incredulous as to its healing abilities. The centuries-old Chinese practice of acupuncture, rooted in 'non-scientific' and 'non-Western' thought and medicine, has burgeoned during the late-twentieth century trend towards 'alternative medicines.' Numerous clients readily attest to the positive effects of acupuncture in treating such conditions as postoperative pain, asthma, and drug addiction. Even so, many people are skeptical that placing hair-thin needles into one's skin in an effort to change the flow of 'Qi'(pronounced Ch'i) through mystical pathways in the body called meridians could relieve pain or cure a seemingly chronic and incurable problem. In recent years, several theories have been put forth to provide a more Western, scientific explanation for the successes of acupuncture, many of which concern the activation of opioid peptides. Whatever explanation to which one chooses to subscribe, the success and health benefits of acupuncture can stand on their own.

The Chinese practice of acupuncture can be defined as a procedure that nourishes and aids the body's natural healing processes. After the client's health evaluation is complete and the acupuncturist has established the person's individual case, the practitioner can begin the actual treatment. "Classic acupuncture," as Cohen defines it, "Is the art of inserting very fine, sterile, metal filoform needles into certain points along the channels and collaterals [of the body] in order to control the flow of Qi." Usually needles are placed several centimeters into the skin for certain distinct periods of time; sometimes this is accompanied with a small electric shock or heat (called Moxibuston).

Qi is the fundamental concept behind the Chinese and Eastern justification for the function of acupuncture. Chinese texts describe channels of energy called meridians that flow throughout the body in regular patterns, a system just like the circulatory system or the nervous system. Flowing through these meridians is Qi, vital life energy. Disease, defined as the imbalance in the flow of Qi, can result from blockage of the meridians or a deficiency of energy. "Disharmony of Qi will affect spiritual, emotional, mental, and the physical aspects of the body. The acupuncturist works to restore your Qi to a natural and healthy level of circulation" (7). Needles are used to puncture the meridians where they come close to the surface of the skin in order to unblock or nudge the Qi to flow back into its proper channels, thus restoring its balance in the body.

During the past few decades, the practice of acupuncture has come under the intense scrutiny of the Western nations (primarily the United States, England, and Europe), and there has been a push to formulate a scientific explanation for the consequences of this 'mystical phenomenon' on the body. Although no singular theory has been successful in entirely proving or discovering the intrinsic significance of acupuncture on the nervous system, it is generally accepted that the effects of acupuncture on the body involves the release of opioid peptides in the body.

The opioid peptides are a comprised of endorphins, enkephallins, and dynorphins, types of neurotransmitters, and are found in neurons throughout the body. Opioid peptides are thought to be closely involved with the perception of pain in the central nervous system (2). This hypothesis involving the opioids describes that pain is felt when the nervous system gets trapped in a kind of negative feedback loop. This can occur when either the brain hasn't registered the pain because the input to the nervous system isn't sufficient to reach the absolute threshold to release endorphins or the pain originates at a different source than where the body actually perceives the pain. In the later case, although endorphins have been released to one area, the root cause of the pain remains damaged and continues to cause pain even after the body has presumably taken care of the problem. Needling in acupuncture triggers the release of opioids in the nervous system by drawing attention to the problem area, either directly or indirectly . After the afflicted area can move and operate freely without the hindrance of pain and the pattern in the nervous system that was creating the pain is broken, often the area will proceed to heal naturally.

R. Melzack and P.D. Wall proposed another theory for how acupuncture affects the nervous system called "the gate theory." In this idea, impulses are transmitted through the nervous system from neuron to neuron, resulting in interpretation of the perception of pain in the brain. If a neuron is bombarded with too many 'pain signals' at once, it closes down, like closing a gate. This blocks any further impulses from reaching the brain. Acupuncture, presumably, does what the body would otherwise do naturally but does not because there is an insufficient amount of impulses to cause the neuron to 'close down.' "Stimulation [by the acupuncture needle] prohibits the passage of stronger pain signals down the same nerve and produces an analgesic effect" (4).

While theories describing opioid peptides and "the gate theory" provide the infrastructure for gaining a better scientific understanding of acupuncture, there are two other related concepts that are of importance to understanding the function of acupuncture. The first is the idea of 'pain memory.' " 'Memory," as Dr. Anthony Campbell states on this issue, "does not refer to the conscious recollection of painful events, but to the persistence of functional and possibly structural changes in the central nervous system as a result of injury to distant parts of the body" (2). This is the idea that pain can persist after all obvious, physical problems have been corrected, such is the case of such enigmas as thalamic pain and phantom limbs. Pain remains because, through the course of the actual injury, changes were made in the nervous system itself, such as reverberating neuronal circuits or biochemical changes (2). In effect, there is a 'memory' of the pain that has actually been ingrained into the person's physiology that acts as if the condition were still present. Acupuncture can help to restore the nervous system to its previous condition by "providing a train of impulses to the central nervous system," and "turn[ing] off a painful circuit"(2).

The second concept that requires understanding is the notion of trigger points. These are points on the body that have been studied for many years in Western medicine that, when compared, correspond precisely with Eastern acupuncture points. These are places in muscle tissue that, "are tender when pressed and may give rise to referred pain and other remote effects" (2). The existence of trigger points has been medically proven, and may result from the misuse or over-extenuation of a muscle. Acupuncture is often useful to neutralize these points, as well as medical procedures such as local anesthesia and corticosteriods.

Lao-tzu tells followers in Tao te Ching that, "The simplest pattern is the clearest." Perhaps it is that Westerners are looking too hard to find a complex explanation for acupuncture. The Chinese belief of the flow of Qi through the body provides a very simple rationalization that has held for over four millennia, while Western science is still floundering for concrete evidence at the level of the neuron. In view of our class's idea of the nervous system as boxes of input and out put within other boxes within other boxes, couldn't the insertion of a needle into a trigger point be regarded as a simple road-sign urging the action potential in one direction or the other as it travels from one neuron to the next? Any kind of pain perceived in the brain is only a distinct pattern of neuron discharges communicating with one another through changes in electrical and chemical potentials. Acupuncture can be regarded as another form of input to the nervous system affecting the overall cycle of input and output, supplementing the processes that are already occurring naturally.


WWW Sources

1), How Does Acupuncture Work?

2) Acupuncture in Practice by Dr. Anthony Campbell

3) British Medical Acupuncture Society

4) Examining Traditional Chinese Medicine

5) Foundation for Chinese Medicine

6) Harvard Brain

7) Introduction to Acupuncture

8) "Neuropathways of Acupuncture Analgesia"

9) Rhema Home Page



Comments made prior to 2007

i thought i would share my comments as i have 1st hand witness of what acupuncture can do as it has saved my life.

I am 20 years old, and in july this year i pulled a tricep muscle in my right arm as i had a sudden loss of strength in my arm.AFter taking some pain killers the pain became worst and eventually my muscles all around my shoulder became tight and began to get strained.The pain spread to my left arm and when i asked a doctor what to do they gave me no advice and told me just to keep on taking pain killers.

Eventually my arms tightened in very uncomfortable position and i had to rest my arms on pillows.eventually the pain subsided but my arms had tightened in incorrect position.

My brother then stretched me out and although i might have been a bit stiff, my arms were normal. However all of a sudden my trapezium got caught between my neck and my shoulder and i couldnt stretch it out. All of a sudden my hands became puffy and red and i had this altered sensation around my hands,arms and my neck.

At that moment i went to a doctor and he told me not to worry and take some more pain killers,however i felt it did nothing.

A few more days passed and i was now in intense pain,the altered sensation was now moving into my face and my back. Again i go to the doctor and they tell me to go away.AT this moment it seems like i am bothering them but i am in imense pain.

I wanted to fix the problem but firstly nobody believed me when i said i had a problem and 2ndly i knew pain killers did nothing, the altered sensation then began to move down the legs and it felt like the blood was destroying my knees.

I then began to develop clicking in my knees and feet which seemed very strange and i couldnt walk properly.My legs felt like they were going to collapse.

I begged my mother for help and again we went back to the doctor,he said it wasnt neurological as i could still move my arms but i was in severe pain and recommended i see a psychologist.They then began to feel i was suffering from depression when in reality my symptoms were making me depressed and angry.

MY mother then became very angry at me and told me to get on with life as normal yet i felt helpless and wanted to die as nobody would believe me.

other symptoms i had were my muscles contracted into balls of muscles around my back,buttocks and made me severely constipated.The doctor said to that it was because i wasnt doing any exercise which was rubbish.The doctors just wouldnt listen to me. I could feel my testicles going cold, sexual disfunction,very dark urine,different parts of my body were cold whilst other were wrist were going limp,my face went pale and to all that the doctors had no answer and in many ways told me to go away as if to say it wasnt an emergency.My fingertips were still red but my forearms were freezing so according to western medicine my circulation was fine

what made me most angry was when i saw the neurologist,he saw nothing in my blood tests or x-ray or mri and implied the pain was in my head.

At that moment i felt like giving up as nobody would believe me. I then went to see a chinese doctor who understood my problem and said it was my nervous system,gave me herbal medicine, acupuncture, cupping and could feel a has taken me over 2 months to regain 70% of my normal self and i improve day by day.I have very intense sessions and the muscles now feel like releasing themselves when before all they did was contract and get tighter.

Whenever i go to a doctor,they still dont believe me and they think it is because i am psychologically more stable.

there are obvious gaps in western medicine yet doctors dont like to admit it,when they do the medical examination,the chinese method is much better for my symptoms.

The chinese doctor pointed out that if i did nothing,i would of become paralysed then i would of died which i am sure western medicine would of seen.

I hope this never happens to anyone else and i hope this is of use.

I dont understand why western doctors dont prescribe eastern medicine when eastern medicine says western medicine is correct some of the time but not all the time.

Needles stimulate the muscles much better than anti depressants guaranteed ... Fabian, 27 October 2006


Kicker Harding's picture

Erectile Disfunction

I have erectile Disfunction and was just wondering if acupuncture would help? I'm not really too keen on having someone shoving needles through my penis but if there are other puncture points on my body that could relieve this issue I am up for testing it.

ralph roosevelt's picture


My friend was on methadone for about 23 years. The methadone suppressed her phantom pains during this period and made her feel 'normal'. Unfortunately no one warned her about the real danger of using this drug over a very long period. It has damaged her central nervous system and now eight months after she has ceased all drug use she is still recovering. Western medicine can not offer her anything except more pain killing drugs which she can not take as they exsasperate the symptoms. Acupuncture is at least giving her some relief by reducing the symptoms and hopefully over a long period of time the symtoms may dissappear. Her symptoms include difficulty breathing, pins and needles, numbness in various parts of the body. As she dooes not feel well enough to do exercise this is reducing her ability to get better also.

Dr Lak Derrik's picture

alternative healing

Well, Healing is considered very Devine in ancient cultures and today's alternative medicine practitioners. I have seen many types of healing practices from various parts of the world.And it's amazing how all the alternative medicines sort of 'confuse' Science but they are explainable by the healers themselves.

Every traditional healer precisely understands any other healer's (from any part of the world) practice. The responce is either, approval, competitive reaction or Absolute denial. The application of Qi to healing can be precisely explained by occult practitioners and religious healers.

The most amazing application of beliefs in medicine is prophetic medicine or Roqyah (you can google it).............completely redefines the world as we know it..........AMAZING!!

Serendip Visitor Kevin's picture

Scientific or not does not mean right or wrong

As a Chinese medicine doctor, I am seeing patients like the 20-year-old person case here everyday, that most of the problems are helpless by western medicine. Actually nowadays more and more people realize that western medicine has lots of limitations. Modern medicine is based on modern science which is good at materialistic world but not life. Life is far more complicated than the reach of knowledge of modern science. Therefore, science is NOT the only standard. If people Now people are more likely to hold the doctrine that judging something right or wrong by proving if it is scientific or not. They are misconceptual by this dogma.

Jeanne's picture

Bad side effects from anti-psychotic medicine

Can acupuncture help a person who had some bad side effects from anit-psychotic medicine? The bad side effects are loss of short & long term memory, loss of bodily functions only during the night while asleep, speech problems, tardive dysontia & some others.

george mcarthur's picture

diabetic foot tingling

my feet tingle, more when I am tired. have type 2 diabetes. can this system be effective? GMc

Anuj's picture


I have spinal cord nfection problem resulting in weakness of my sensoryy and motor nerves of my lower limbs.Its diagonised as demyelination. Suggest me whether accupunture can help it?

Eddie Pritchard's picture


hi there i got shot in the head on 6-15-07 (thank god im still alive) but the doctors said i had stroke like symtoms the bullet hit me on top of my head on the left side which paralyzed my right side...i have got my arm strenth back and very little of my leg and i can push my foot down and can pick it up but not all the way up cant turn it from side to side yet and cant pick my toes up but can push them down somewhat...the bullet nevr touch my brain but the skull fragments did touch my brain ..the doctors saidthey most of the fragments outbut there was a very small fragment that had settled on my brain and it was to risky to go any further..but now i still cant walk very good and my balance is really bad...i have been goin to a accupunturist but she doesnt really no about people with my stroke like condition..would you have any suggestions for me

thank you

huanghuixing's picture

How Does Acupuncture Work

Several processes have been proposed to explain acupuncture's effects, primarily those on pain. Acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals either change the experience of pain or release other chemicals, such as hormones, that influence the body's self-regulating systems. The biochemical changes may stimulate the body's natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well-being. There are three main mechanisms:

1.Conduction of electromagnetic signals: Scientists have found evidence that acupuncture points are strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. Stimulating points along these pathways through acupuncture enables electromagnetic signals to be relayed at a greater rate than under normal conditions. These signals may start the flow of pain-killing biochemicals, such as endorphins, and of immune system cells to specific sites in the body that are injured or vulnerable to disease.

2.Activation of opioid systems: Research has found that several types of opioids may be released into the central nervous system during acupuncture treatment, thereby reducing pain.

3.Changes in brain chemistry, sensation, and involuntary body functions: Studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones. Acupuncture also has been documented to affect the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes whereby a person's blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature are regulated.