How does acupuncture work?

I am often asked this question by my patients at some point during one of their acupuncture sessions.

They want to know how inserting needles in their wrists, abdomen and between their eyebrows will help with their anxiety. Or how I know where to insert the needles and for what condition? These are all terrific questions and I am always eager to teach a curious mind.

What is a meridian?

Recently I came across a lovely way of explaining the origins of acupuncture meridians and points, or at least the leading theories behind how it all comes to be.

Before we get into the origin story of meridians let me tell you what they are. Essentially, meridians are energy highways and they are located all over our body.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are 12 meridians : 

  • Heart and Small Intestine
  • Triple Warmer and Pericardium
  • Lung and Large Intestine 
  • Liver and Gallbladder
  • Spleen and Stomach 
  • Kidney and Urinary Bladder.

Acupuncture points are found along the meridians, like pit-stops along a highway. These points are located on areas of the skin where the electromagnetic current that runs throughout our body comes close to the surface.

As a result, it is sensitive to electrical energy from outside the body. We can use acupuncture needles to help electrical energy flow from one place to the other.

Acupuncture meridians 
Acupuncture points 
Lung meridian 
Acupuncture map 
Pericardium meridian
Here you can see the lung meridian on the left which is represented as a solid black line and the acupuncture points as red dots.
On the right, you can see the pericardium meridian and its acupuncture points.

A journey back in time

Now to explain how these energy highways come to be we have to go all the way back to when we were just cells in our mother’s womb. 

When an egg is fertilized it becomes a single-celled organism called a zygote. Through a process called cleavage, this single-cell divides into 2 cells and then into 4 cells and so on. As the embryo develops certain cells start to merge together along what looks like fold lines.

Cell division 
Acupuncture meridians 
Fold lines
Fold lines 
Acupuncture meridians 

These fold lines mark the separation of one group of cells from another; they also mark the connection between groups of related cells. As cells continue to differentiate along these fold lines, they become organs and organ systems.

The folds lines remain in our bodies even after the organ systems are formed, and modern researchers in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believe that the folds lines become the energy meridians used in acupuncture.

Now let’s pretend that the initial single-celled zygote is a house built on a large empty lot. 

Like any large empty lot in any busy city, it does not stay empty for long.

Now imagine that builders start building house after house until multiple subdivisions are created. 

Between each subdivision, there is an electric fence that keeps what’s on one side of the fence separate from what’s on the other side. At the same time, if someone were to put a jolt of electricity into one end of the fence, the energy would travel very quickly and efficiently to the other end. The electric fences represent the fold lines or meridians I mentioned above.

What happens when something goes wrong?

Now imagine that a tree fell on top of one of our electric fences. This fallen tree would interrupt the flow of electricity in the electric fence. In other words, the energy from point A of the fence would no longer make it to point B.

We’ll discuss two ways that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approaches this issue. First, we must find the root cause behind why the tree fell in the first place. Maybe it was termite or a bolt of lightning, for example. For humans, emotions, lifestyle, and diet can cause all kinds of blockages within our meridians.

Second, we must fix and restore power to the electric fence as we put measures into place to prevent another tree from falling down on that fence again. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we restore the flow of energy through the meridians with metallic acupuncture needles since metal is the best conduit for energy.

Each acupuncture point is carefully selected to address the root cause and the resulting symptoms. For example, if a tree fell on the liver meridian it might cause the liver Qi to stagnate. This blockage could cause premenstrual breast swelling and abdominal bloating. Common causes for Liver Qi stagnation include anger, frustration and irritability. While we address the blockage in the liver meridian and the symptoms produced with acupuncture we would want to look into why these emotions are so present.

What’s the difference between acupuncture and dry needling?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the acupuncture needles are inserted into specific locations (acupuncture points) depending on the TCM diagnosis.

In comparison, dry needling practitioners will generally insert needles where they feel muscle tension or where someone feels pain or tightness. The needles are not inserted in acupuncture meridians and are not selected based on TCM diagnosis.

To learn about pre-birth acupuncture click here

To learn about post-birth acupuncture click here

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Lewis, Randine. The infertility Cure. New York, Little, Brown Spark, March 2005.

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