Years ago, while working as an engineer in Boston, I received acupuncture treatments focused on reducing the high level of stress in my life. I had been on a very taxing project at work and after hearing a co-worker rave about an acupuncturist, I became curious enough to begin weekly acupuncture treatments. I found the treatments to be incredibly relaxing. Though difficult to describe in words how I felt physically or emotionally after a treatment, I was certain that I wanted to experience that physical and emotional state at all times, one of extreme contentment, comfort, and awareness.
It was apparent to me that acupuncture treatments brought about a change, but as an engineer, I sought a logical explanation and became curious about how acupuncture could elicit such a response in a patient. It seemed implausible that inserting about ten extremely thin needles into a patient’s body for approximately twenty minutes could result in such a dramatic change, and yet that is precisely what was happening. The more treatments I received, the more I was able to feel the therapeutic effects, and the more fascinated I became with acupuncture.
During these treatments, I was frequently frustrated when I asked the acupuncturist to explain how acupuncture worked. The acupuncturist would state tersely that unbalanced energy was being balanced. Each subsequent question seemed to be met with a similarly brief, matter-of-fact response. I assumed that my acupuncturist was actually avoiding my questions. I got the impression that he couldn’t really explain how acupuncture worked, so instead he filled the air with incomprehensible, new-age jargon. I just wanted an answer to my question.
Several years later, while living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I met a student who was studying at a local acupuncture college. She had studied acupuncture for two years and would be graduating in another year. Now, I could surely get an answer to my question. I asked her very specifically how a needle inserted into one part of the human body could bring about change in a different part of the body. I asked her what physiological or even chemical changes were taking place to explain that phenomenon. She didn’t hesitate at all before telling me, “I don’t know. I have no idea.” Again, I found this answer very unsatisfying. Wouldn’t her education, an accredited master’s degree program, focus on that very topic? How could she be incapable of answering this question after two years of studying acupuncture?
After another year had passed, my continued interest in acupuncture led me to apply and enroll at Southwest Acupuncture College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 3,000 hour program, leading to a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine, helped me see my questions and their answers in a new light. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now fully understand why the answers to my questions had been so unsatisfying. I was unaware at the time that I had been seeking a Western explanation of a very Eastern concept. In asking my questions, I was not only interested in learning about how acupuncture worked, but I was also implicitly expecting an answer in my language, in terms understandable by someone living in the West.
In the academic programs teaching traditional Chinese medicine in the United States today, there is little emphasis placed upon the subject of how acupuncture works from a scientific point of view. Rather, the educational programs focus upon helping the student understand the Eastern explanation of acupuncture, the one that I originally found so evasive and confusing.
This isn’t to say that research studies aren’t focused on determining how acupuncture works from a modern scientific viewpoint. In many such studies, acupuncture has been shown to trigger the brain to release endorphins and enkephalins, chemicals with pain relieving properties. Other theories propose that acupuncture needles jam the neuronal pathways and thereby prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. Additional studies have shown that acupuncture needle insertion activates the brain’s regulation of neurotransmitters and hormones, affecting many primary systems in the body, including the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.
Yet during my acupuncture studies, I finally began to see the value of understanding the traditional Chinese explanation of acupuncture, since that was the paradigm within which instructors and practitioners had worked for thousands of years. If we try to talk about Chinese medicine strictly from a scientific viewpoint, then we are not really talking about Chinese medicine. We would be excluding a large quantity of important Chinese medical philosophy which is inextricably linked to what this medicine is and from where it has come. During the course of my studies, I began to see and eventually embrace the fact that in order to learn how traditional Chinese medicine works, it is necessary to understand those who have a history of practicing it.
Thus, acupuncture works because with extremely thin, sterile, disposable acupuncture needles, an acupuncturist accesses a patient’s energy and restores balance. Traditional Chinese medical theory is based upon the fact that there is an energy that flows in the human body through specific pathways, or channels. The energy flowing through these pathways can become blocked or obstructed due to emotional stress, unhealthy lifestyle choices, harmful environmental factors, poor diet, or physical injury. When this energy becomes blocked, the result is pain, discomfort, or disease. An acupuncturist uses acupuncture needles (and other methods) to mildly stimulate certain specific points on the body to restore balance to the normal flow of that energy, relieving pain, and treating disease. Hopefully, you don’t find this explanation unsatisfying. If you do, you may not be alone.