“Western medicine,” with its emphasis on pharmaceuticals, advanced diagnostic testing techniques and innovative surgical procedures has completely revolutionized healthcare and transformed what is possible in modern life. We can now overcome threats such as infection or trauma that would have led to certain death less than even a hundred years ago.
However, it is not the only system of medicine that exists, nor the only one that matters. Part of why I love practicing functional and integrative medicine is because it acknowledges and utilizes tools outside of standard Western medicine—and the integration of all of this knowledge leads to better patient outcomes.
History of Acupuncture
Acupuncture is one such tool that has been utilized in China for literally thousands of years. The first inarguable evidence of acupuncture’s practice dates back to 100 B.C., though there are other pieces of possible evidence dating back much further than that. For those who don’t know, acupuncture involves penetrating the skin with very thin needles across various locations of the body. That is the basic practice, and the nuance comes in the precise locations, depths, time course and number of needles used by the provider. The document from 100 B.C. which describes acupuncture was entitled “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine” and details an organized system of diagnosis and treatment.
Now, to be clear, just because something is old does not mean it is good. But it has existed for so long for good reason, and it has had thousands of years to be refined and optimized into what it is now.
There are common misconceptions about acupuncture that have prevented many people in the Western world from considering it as a viable option for improving their health. We are slowly catching on as science proves its effectiveness and patients see beneficial outcomes—most commonly in relieving pain. But a 2012 analysis found that only 1.5% of Americans had used acupuncture in the prior 12 months, which is far less than the number of people who deal with chronic pain (or any of the many other conditions which can see benefit).
How Acupuncture Works
How acupuncture works is most commonly explained as assisting with the flow of “qi” or energy through the body’s “meridians.” Some have been skeptical of acupuncture because of this “unscientific” framework. I understand the skepticism. Thankfully, we have modern research which can address these concerns, provide some assurance as to the effectiveness of acupuncture—and offer concrete explanations for why acupuncture may work as it does.
There are a variety of mechanisms through which acupuncture confers benefits, but at the end of the day—-acupuncture seems to be working through stimulation of the nervous system. The insertion of the needles can, via modulation of the nervous system: increase blood flow, calm the HPA-axis and downregulate the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”), stimulate the release of pain-reducing endocannabinoids and neurotransmitters, reduce inflammation levels and upregulate anti-inflammatory endogenous opioids, among other effects.
All of these mechanisms can work together to help reduce pain, which is the most common use for acupuncture and where the most research has been done. However as you can see, acupuncture is working via many complex mechanisms, and calming the nervous system and reducing inflammation are goals in most chronic conditions. For example, recent analyses showed significant benefits for anxiety and migraine, just to name two. Research will continue to explore which conditions may benefit from acupuncture.
Acupuncture from a well-trained practitioner has an incredibly low risk profile, with high potential for upside. It’s not a miracle intervention, and it doesn’t always benefit everyone—but it is probably worth considering, especially if you are not finding the relief you hope for with foundational diet, lifestyle, and supplement interventions, and would like to explore alternatives to medication.
Andrew Graham is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner licensed to practice in the State of Arizona. He completed his Master’s in Nursing from Boston College after earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutritional Science from Brigham Young University. Before receiving his conventional training, he discovered and began studying functional and integrative medicine many years prior after dealing with health issues himself. Andrew is committed to thoroughly investigating patient’s health concerns in an effort to identify root causes, and then using the most effective combination of conventional and integrative modalities in order to optimize health and well-being. Particular interests include gut health, nutrition, blood sugar issues, hormonal imbalances and longevity medicine.