What is Acupuncture?
Traditional acupuncture is based on ancient Chinese theories on the flow of life energy—qi (pronounced chee)—and blood. According to early Chinese medical texts, the primary basis of all human illness is an obstruction of qi or blood: obstructed flow creates the conditions for surface or deep physical illness.
Qi energy circulates throughout the body along well-defined pathways or meridians. The blood circulates through vessels. Qi is function, the driver of activity; blood is the provision of warmth and nourishment. Acupuncture is the insertion of fine needles into specific locations on the body known as “acupoints” to stimulate, to strengthen, and to heal by regulating the flow of qi and blood in the body.
A vast web of vessels and meridians connect each part of the body at a systemic level—a reciprocal interrelationship of bones, sinews, muscles, fascia, organs. The surface layer nervous system ultimately makes its way through the tissues to the spinal column and the brain; the peripheral vascular structures ultimately make their way to the vessels that feed the heart, the centre of the circulatory system. By needling the superficial layers of the body, we can access the body’s centre, including the deepest, most fundamental pieces, our heart and brain. The insertion of needles stimulates blood flow and vessels dilate, increasing movement of fresh blood into the body and allowing wastes to be removed. This improves the flow of oxygen, nutrients, and blood to injured areas, nourishing every cell and organ.
The traditional and modern interpretations of the efficacy of acupuncture arise from significantly different worldviews and from application of different paradigms of scientific analysis. It is difficult to directly correlate the two, though one can say that many of the traditional observations and ideas have partial explanations using modern terminology.
In the language of biological chemistry, diseases and injuries are resolved by a complex set of responses, coordinated by several signalling systems. The signalling systems mainly involve peptides and other small biochemicals that are released at one site, travel to other sites, interact with cells, and stimulate various biologically programmed responses. Diseases are understood to be caused by microorganisms, metabolic failures, and changes in DNA structure, breakdown of the immune system or the signalling system.
The primary signalling system affected by acupuncture is the nervous system, which not only transmits signals along the nerves that comprise it, but also emits a variety of biochemicals that influence other cells of the body. The nervous system, with over 30 peptides involved in transmitting signals, is connected to the hormonal system via the adrenal gland, and it makes connections to every cell and system of the body.
The insertion of needles improves nerve impulses to the brain, as the Peripheral Nervous System is connected to Central Nervous System. Acupuncture stimulates the exterior layers to influence sensory nerves and activates nocioceptor and propriocaptro fibers. These impulses travel from skin through tissues to spine to brain, and then promote the release of opioid-like chemicals such as endorphins to minimize pain signals.
The “gate theory” proposes that acupuncture at acupoints stimulates peripheral nerves, which sequentially turn off specific nerve fibers in the central nervous system to effectively cease the transmission of pain impulses and modulate disease. Additionally, trigger points connect to nerve reflexes –muscles work smoothly because of nerve loops–creating a smoother contraction and less pain.
Acupuncture triggers a threat or localized inflammation, which can trigger the repair response. Within this chemically mediated response is a relaxing, and anti-anxiety effect. Through the superficial stimulation of the nervous system, immune system, and circulation it encourages the adrenal gland to produce natural steroid hormones to deal with inflammatory and pain.
Traditional Chinese medicine is not a static system, but an evolving one. Thus, in China and in the West, there are many researchers who are working on an integration of the earlier traditional approach and the modern understanding. Ultimately, what we know is that acupuncture stimulates the body to heal itself.
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