How does Acupuncture Work?

Scientific research has shown that acupuncture works as a complex signaling system involving the immune, lymphatic, nervous, and endocrine systems. Although science has yet to explain all the mechanisms of acupuncture, researchers have made important advancements in it’s understanding. The following is an overview of what modern science has discovered about acupuncture points and how they how they influence physiology.

Acupuncture Triggers Signaling Systems

Acupuncture point stimulation affects signaling systems. These signals mainly involve peptides and other small biochemicals being released, traveling, interacting with other cells and triggering programmed responses. Acupuncture manipulation triggers specific and complex changes in functioning of various structures of the brain. For example, acupuncture can trigger the signaling system that is responsible for the release of endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin, resulting in pain relief.

Acupuncture Alters Brain Function

An integral part of the biomedical mechanism of acupuncture is its effect on the hypothalamus. Acupuncture promotes expression of neuronal nitric oxide synthase, decreases neuropeptide Y production due to stimulation on the paraventricular nucleus, and mediates cardiovascular functions through manipulation of the hypothalamus. Acupuncture is also shown to trigger responses, such as parasympathetic and cardiovascular responses, in the medulla oblongata, midbrain, and prefrontal cortex. Although acupuncture and neurology cannot be linked hand to hand, it is proven that acupuncture needles cause cytoskeletal reorganization which induces cell contraction, migration and protein synthesis as well as leads to modification of surrounding extracellular matrix, autocrine and paracrine effects.

Acupuncture Causes Local Cell Restructuring

Local mechanism of acupuncture is perhaps the simplest mechanism. By causing micro trauma, acupuncture stimulation leads to impulse resulting in local vasodilatation and release of vascular and neuroactive mediators. It also causes mast cells, platelets, and other immune cells to migrate to the site of injury and together with the damaged cells release neuroactive mediators.

Six Important Scientific Findings of Acupuncture Stimulation

1. Acupuncture points have high electrical current density as well as high density of GAP junctions and connections, functioning as cell to cell pathways for electrical currents and allowing complex downstream effects on multicellular organisms such as embryonic, organ, and tissue development, cell death, tissue restructuring, and electrical coupling. 1, 2

2. Acupuncture needle insertion triggers local inflammatory and immune responses, fibroblast spreading and cytoskeletal remodeling, release of adenosine (antinociceptive effects), neuromodulatory mechanisms, increase of opioid peptides, and autonomic nervous system modulation. 3

3. Needle insertion induces release of substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide, both functioning in the transmission of pain. 4

4. Needling can alter cerebrospinal fluid concentrations of natural opioid substances including corticosteroids, dynorphin, endorphin, and enkephalin, producing analgesic effects. 5

5. Acupuncture point properties include increased conductance, reduced impedance and resistance, increased capacitance, and elevated electrical potential compared to adjacent nonacupuncture points. 6

6. Stimulation of acupuncture points potentiate stimulus response and alteration of pain perception not only with needle insertion, but with non-specific point stimulation, such as pressure. Non-specific placebo factors such as patients’ perceptions of a treatment and expectations towards effect appear to be central to the clinical efficacy of acupuncture analgesia. 7


Shang, Charles, MD. "The Medical Acupuncture Web Page." Mechanism of acupuncture - Beyond neurohumoral theory. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 June 2017.

Stux, Gabriel, R. Hammerschlag, and Brian Berman. Clinical acupuncture: scientific basis. Berlin: Springer, 2001. Print.

"Acupuncture Research - Areas of High and Low Programmatic Priorities." National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 01 Dec. 2015. Web. 01 June 2017.

Kashiba, Hitoshi, and Yoshihiro Uedo. "Acupuncture to the Skin Induces Release of Substance P and Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide From Peripheral Terminals of Primary Sensory Neurons in the Rat." World Scientific Publishing Company. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 1991. Web. 01 June 2017.

Wilkinson, Jonathan, and Richard Faleiro. "Acupuncture in pain management." Continuing Education in Anaesthesia Critical Care & Pain. Oxford University Press, 01 Aug. 2007. Web. 01 June 2017.

Ahn, Andrew C., and Ørjan G. Martinsen. "Electrical Characterization of Acupuncture Points: Technical Issues and Challenges." Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.). U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2007. Web. 01 June 2017.

Vase, Lene, Sara Baram, Nobuari Takakura, Hiroyoshi Yajima, Miho Takayama, Ted J. Kaptchuk, Søren Schou, Troels Staehelin Jensen, Robert Zachariae, and Peter Svensson. "Specifying the non-specific components of acupuncture analgesia." Pain. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2013. Web. 01 June 2017.

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