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Acupuncture is the process of inserting thin, flexible needles into the body, to provide pain relief and treat a range of symptoms. The stainless steel needles are used to stimulate meridians (lines running through the body), acupuncture points, or neural zones underneath the skin.
Acupuncture has been practised for over 2,500 years, originating in modern-day China. Some people believe it was practised in Eurasia as early as the Stone Age, with possible acupuncture needles found made of stone and animal bone.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine that has ancient roots. The first description of acupuncture diagnosis and treatment appears in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, written around 300 BC in China. The chinese created needles from bamboo, copper, silver, iron, bronze and gold, and it’s believed that modern hypodermic needles were inspired from these original versions.
Traditional Chinese medicine states the existence of Qi (pronounced chee)—a life force within the body that flows along 12 to 14 pathways (meridians), between and through the surface of the body (skin, fascia, muscle, bone) and its internal organs. An imbalance or disruption to the flow of Qi can trigger illness, which can be manipulated and fixed with acupuncture.
The existence of Qi has never been scientifically proven, but despite this, acupuncture has been proven to treat a wide range of issues, including chronic pain, anxiety, fertility problems, and weight loss.
Given the complexity of the body and its numerous systems, it’s difficult to pin down a single process that makes acupuncture work, and in fact, it may work in a number of different ways.
A 2013 study (Dominic P Lu, Gabriel P Lu, 2013, PMC) from Dominic and Gabriel Lu found that acupuncture activates neurohormonal pathways, triggering biochemical processes in the body and releasing “endorphins, serotonin, enkephalins, γ-aminobutyric acid, norepinephrine and dopamine,” which can help to heal the patient.
By stimulating the body’s nerves, acupuncture needles send signals to the brain, which releases neural hormones that can make the patient feel happy, and reduce their pain. It’s thought that acupuncture doesn’t directly release feel-good chemicals, but instead works at a broader level, stimulating organs such as the pituitary gland, which produces extra hormones.
Other studies have shown that acupuncture decreases proinflammatory markers such as IL-1β and TNF, which reduces inflammation and pain. A common example of a proinflammatory marker in acupuncture is below the knee, which when targeted, can reduce inflammation across the entire body, as well as increase energy levels, and strengthen the immune system.
When using acupuncture to treat nerve damage, it’s believed that the needle sends signals to the brain that tell it to grow and repair nerves, which leads to nerve regeneration. When used in conjunction with fertility treatments, acupuncture has shown to increase the effectiveness of hormone-increasing drugs, with a better balance of hormones, and an improved chance of the patient becoming pregnant2.