How Exactly Does Acupuncture Work?

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
At first, acupuncture seems kind of spooky. You get poked with hundreds of small needles in specific parts of your body, and ta-da — you're healthier. Of course, it's not that simple, but there is scientific evidence that acupuncture is as effective as some medications when it comes to treating certain medical conditions.
Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, but medical professionals and researchers still don't completely understand how it works, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). That said, there are a few possible explanations.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, we all have "energetic energy" that supports our physical and mental functions, says Jingduan Yang, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and founding medical director of Tao Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia. When this energy is blocked, deficient, or depleted, it affects our health, and can even lead to certain medical conditions or diseases, he says. "Acupuncture is the tool or modality that addresses the energetic balance of human beings, and it is a very effective and unique tool to treat health conditions," Dr. Yang says. In theory, acupuncture is designed to "unblock, redirect, and facilitate energy flows," he says.
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Improving your body's "energetic function" might also facilitate a biochemical response in your body, which can help to alleviate certain symptoms, Dr. Yang says. Acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the body to produce endorphins, your body's "natural pain killer," he says. That might explain why acupuncture is so effective for people with chronic pain conditions, according to the NCCIH. Plus, there's likely a placebo effect that plays a role in patients' success with acupuncture.

"The physiology of acupuncture is understanding what's going on in your body, and adjusting your treatment to see if it properly changes how your body is working."

John Reed, MD
There are loads of studies claiming that acupuncture can treat certain conditions just as well as medications, says John Reed, MD, a board-certified family physician in New Windsor, New York, and founding member of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. For example, a 2009 study found that acupuncture insomnia sufferers' sleep duration better than medication. A 2015 study concluded that acupuncture has the same effectiveness in treating migraines as conventional preventative drugs.
According to Dr. Yang, the conditions that respond well to acupuncture are the ones that seem to cause symptoms without an underlying cause, such as migraines, IBS, and insomnia. "Many of them are the ones that you can't find anything structurally off or chemically wrong; you can't pinpoint what's wrong in most of the cases," he says. An acupuncturist will take a look at what the condition is, and figure out what's going on that's making it happen, Dr. Reed says. "The physiology of acupuncture is understanding what's going on in your body, and adjusting your treatment to see if it properly changes how your body is working," he says.
It's also important to point out that acupuncture shouldn't be used as a replacement for modern medicine. "Acupuncture is a tool, and in order to make it effective, you have to utilize it based on your diagnosis," Dr. Yang says. If you would like to start acupuncture treatments to help some of your medical conditions, it's a good idea to see an MD who administers acupuncture, Dr. Reed says. They'll have knowledge of your condition and the drugs you're already taking and will be able to tailor their acupuncture approach accordingly, he advises.
"The acupuncturist should be able to give you a plan and course of treatment," he says. Even though it sounds like it could solve all your health problems with a simple prick, that's not the case. Acupuncture often takes several treatments. "You don't want to go to someone who says, 'Okay, I can do magic,'" Dr. Yang says.
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