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We Trust This Treatment, But We Don’t Know Why It Works

acupunctureAcupuncture works. Practitioners of Chinese medicine have known that for thousands of years, and acupuncture has gained wide acceptance in the western world. Today acupuncture needles are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and many American insurance companies even pay for the treatment.

In 1997 the National Institutes of Health acknowledged that, although scientists do not understand the mechanism by which acupuncture heals, there is ” ‘clear evidence’ that acupuncture works for treatment of postoperative and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. They also found evidence of pain relief from conditions such as postoperative dental pain, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, and fibromyalgia.”

An article in Health.com explains the process:

Acupuncture derives from the concept in traditional Chinese medicine that disease results from a disruption in the flow of chi—the body’s circulating life energy—and imbalances in the forces of yin and yang. Chi is said to flow along pathways in the human body known as meridians. According to Eastern thought, there are as many as 20 meridians and more than 2,000 acupuncture points found along them. Applying tiny needles—or, sometimes, pressure or heat—to those points is believed to deliver therapeutic effects for patients.

The article also offers these theories:

1. It releases natural painkillers, such as endorphins.

2. It puts up a roadblock. This theory posits that acupuncture activates peripheral nerves to interrupt pain signals that travel up the spinal cord. John Lefebvre, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, says:

The gate control theory of pain is one of the predominant theories of pain right now. If you can shut the gates down, you can eliminate the pain. Acupuncture seems to close the gates most of the way.

3. It helps the brain take control. Some scientists believe the power of the treatment may be partly related to patients’ beliefs. Sean Mackey, M.D., chief of the pain management division at Stanford University School of Medicine, says:

I don’t want to suggest that we view acupuncture as a kind of voodoo magic. There’s clearly something going on, we’re still trying to understand it. I believe there is a large central—i.e., brain-related—component to this, and for some people it can be very effective.

While there is much still to e learned about the body’s energy system, tens of millions of people in the Western Hemisphere have now joined the millions in China who rely on acupuncture to alleviate pain and conquer disease.


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