How does acupuncture work?

The exact mechanism for how acupuncture works is a bit of a mystery. This sounds quite disturbing of course and is a major reason why western medicine has difficulty with it. Although not all aspects of western medicine are fully understood (general anaesthesia being one), it is understandable that there are doubts about the ‘truth’ of acupuncture in the mostly physical world of western medicine. I was recently made aware of an (2010) article by Duncan McGechie who discusses the possibility of a link between the acupuncture channels and the body’s connective tissue or fascia.

Meridian Lady

There is not a continuous correlation between the acupuncture channel pathways and the nerve pathways or blood vessels so a helpful physical link between the energetics of the acupuncture channels and the structure of the body is seemingly elusive. The fascia, however, may provide such a link. The fascia or connective tissue is defined in the article as: “Fascia is an uninterrupted three-dimensional web of connective tissue that maintains structural integrity and provides support and protection, contributes to heamodynamic and biochemical processes, defends against infection and assists with tissue repair“. In addition, there are hypotheses that suggest that the fascia functions as a signalling network for the entire body.The 12 main acupuncture channels are often depicted as 2 dimensional lines that run bilaterally all over the body, and primarily thought of as energetic rather than physical in nature. There is also a functional link between the channels and their associated organs, so that the Heart channel, for example, performs its functions in conjunction with the heart itself and not independently of it.

In the afore-mentioned article, McGechie reviews previous research into such a link and, while we are far from conclusive evidence, there are some compelling insights into the actual mechanisms and actions of acupuncture. One study ( Langdoven/Yandow) that is examined maintains that acupuncture points are more likely to be at the junctions of fascial planes – for example, the seam between two distinct muscles along which an acupuncture channels runs – and using MRI and ultrasound scans conclude that “80% of points and 50%of channel intersections coincide with intramuscular or intermuscular connective tissue cleavage planes“.

As an acupuncturist this represents a glimpse into the great unknown. While I accept completely that acupuncture has an observable effect on the people I treat, I have always wondered, pondered  and reflected on HOW it works and what it is that allows the needles I insert to effect the changes I see.


3 Responses to “How does acupuncture work?”
  1. Max Alexander says:

    Just checking Bruce but are meridians not 3 dimensional? 🙂

  2. Max Alexander says:

    Just realised you said ‘depicted as’….please delete previous inane comment 🙂

    • It’s a good point though Max; we learn the meridians as 2D lines and probably take that with us into practice. It’s much more helpful to think of them in 3D terms and why the article is so interesting to me.