What Is Medical Acupuncture And How Does It Work?

It is incredible that many powerful healing effects can be achieved by simply inserting needles into the skin and muscle, positively influencing most of our bodily systems. Just as amazing is the fact that Acupuncture as a treatment technique was discovered many thousands of years ago and has been practised by the Chinese ever since.



Only much more recently, within the previous 40 years or so, has Acupuncture been introduced into our western society. For many of these years the Acupuncture taught and studied has been based on the traditional Chinese Acupuncture method, understandably. The Chinese Acupuncture system is one based on the energy meridian model, a system not subscribed to by the majority of our scientific community.

The term Medical Acupuncture relates to a more modern interpretation of the needling technique and one researched and explained in more scientific terms. This has caused something of a divide between the two camps of Traditional Chinese and Western Medical Acupuncture practitioners. This is also not much of a surprise and such opposing stances can be seen in many other health related topics. That said, some practitioners are able to rationalise both approaches and use Acupuncture with one foot in both camps so to speak.

Regardless of which side of the Acupuncture fence you find yourself in we cannot deny the effectiveness of this needling technique for reducing pain and restoring internal homeostasis. There is a growing evidence basis for Acupuncture based on quality scientific research, a summary of which can be found here.

As Chartered Physiotherapists working at Mount Merrion Physiotherapy we inform our patients and advise about their condition in modern medical terms, using evidence-based assessment and treatment techniques. We therefore tend to explain Acupuncture from a western scientific viewpoint, describing its relevance in treating pain and physical dysfunction as well as the benefits on the body’s nervous and hormonal systems.

Acupuncture as an effective pain reliever

A process known as the ‘segmental effect’ of acupuncture is most likely the main mechanism by which acupuncture is able to relieve pain. By gently stimulating specific areas of the body, nerve signals travel to the spinal cord where they stimulate one of the the body’s own pain suppressing mechanisms involving the opioid analgesic system.

Stress relief and improved well-being thanks to Acupuncture

The nerve signals triggered by Acupuncture stimulation may go on to influence other parts of the brain too, notably the the emotional centre of the brain known as the limbic system. Other effects include the release of hormones, such as oxytocin which has a calming effect and may improve feelings of well being. Acupuncture has also been shown to help wind done the ‘fight and flight’ response due to its effects on the autonomic nervous system.This helps explain why many patients report a calming and stress-relieving experience after receiving Acupuncture as part of their Physiotherapy treatment.

Repairing muscle injury with Acupuncture

Our bodies have an amazing ability to heal themselves under the right conditions. By inserting needles into injured tissue we are causing tiny ‘micro traumas’ which stimulate our immune and other self-regulating systems to activate a healing process. The healing effects may also spread beyond the tiny traumas caused by the needle.

A process referred to as the ‘axon reflex’ is where nerve fibres are stimulated by needling areas in the skin and muscle setting off a number of nerve impulses. The result is a dilation of blood vessels and increased blood flow caused by the release of chemicals such as calcitonin gene related peptide (CGRP) and ATP. Because oxygen-rich blood is required for the repair of all muscle damage, the improved blood flow in response to Acupuncture helps us understand its effectiveness in treating musculoskeletal conditions. CGRP may also help with local healing and ATP may have further local pain relieving effects.

In Physiotherapy treatment we often talk about pain and dysfunction caused by taut bands of muscle containing trigger points, a result of an overworked or stressed muscle. Acupuncture is an extremely effective technique for treating trigger points and an important process for preventing the on going development of persistent pain. Treating muscle trigger points with Acupuncture is also referred to as a technique called Dry Needling, sometimes accompanied by a slightly more vigorous approach.

Who provides Acupuncture treatment

As noted in the beginning of this article, the Chinese have been using Acupuncture for thousands of years. Here in our western societies there are a great many holistic practitioners who will be trained in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach and offer their services based on the energy and meridian concepts.

Due to the growing scientific research and body of evidence available for the use of Acupuncture, this needling technique is being provided in an ever-increasing number of medical professionals in hospitals and clinics. Doctors, consultants and well as Chartered Physiotherapists are now using Acupuncture in an orthodox medical environment.

Trained medical professionals who have studied for many years to attain their university degrees have the benefit of being able to provide a medical diagnosis before applying Acupuncture as a treatment modality.

Acupuncture is generally considered safe but adverse reactions ranging from mild to more severe, although very rare, must be taken into consideration when assessing the suitability for Acupuncture and when carrying out treatment.

I run a series of Acupuncture training courses for fellow medical professionals and place a strong emphasis on safety. I am always encouraged to witness a growing interest to integrate Acupuncture into conventional medical treatment and believe we will be seeing more and more of this in the near future.

by Simon.

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