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How does Acupuncture Work?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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According to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture works by stimulating meridians, lines of energy which flow through the human body. Acupuncture has been practiced for centuries in China and other Asian nations, and it is an important part of holistic health care in these regions. In other parts of the world, the practice has become more popular, with a number of specialists offering it to people who are interested in complementary medicine.

TCM relies on the basic principle that medical conditions can be traced to imbalances of the flow of energy, or qi, in the body. A practitioner attempts to correct this imbalance of energy in a number of ways, integrating herbal treatment, acupuncture, other forms of body work, and sometimes simple talk therapy into this treatment. Energy imbalances are diagnosed through a multi-stage process which involves observation of the patient and inspection of his or her body; an acupuncturist may examine a patient's tongue and feel the pulse, for example, in addition to asking probing questions.

Once an imbalance has been identified, the acupuncturist knows which meridian to treat. Each meridian is marked by a series of specific acupuncture points used in particular circumstances; there are hundreds all over the human body, and several hundred are in active use by most acupuncturists. The practitioner inserts needles into these points to trigger a change in the flow of energy. Once inserted, the needles may be tapped, twisted, or mildly electrified to further influence the meridian.

In the West, there is some debate over whether or not acupuncture is effective, and if it is, which conditions it should be used to treat. Studies on the practice have had mixed results, with some studies suggesting that acupuncture is, in fact, very effective, while others seem to indicate that it may not be useful. In Asia, acupuncture is a highly valued form of medical treatment, used in a wide range of situations by specialists who are trained in acupuncture.

Acupuncture certainly stimulates the flow of chemical compounds in the body, just like other forms of bodywork. It has been used successfully as a form of anesthesia, and it also has an impact on brain activity, as proved by brain scans performed during acupuncture treatment. TCM is difficult to study under the umbrella of Western medicine, since it cannot be empirically tested in the way that drug treatments and other forms of Western medicine can be. As a result, medical authorities in the West are split about acupuncture; you may meet with a doctor who highly recommends it, or one who dismisses it. Ultimately, patients may want to decide for themselves by experiencing it.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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