How acupuncture works for pain

Ask anyone who’s ever had acupuncture for pain and their report will most likely be enthusiastic. In fact, a 2012 "meta-analysis" of scientific studies demonstrated that acupuncture is very effective for pain relief (see the NYTimes' Acupuncture Provides True Pain Relief in Study).

And acupuncture has a much wider range of applications than simply pain, from your everyday cold to women’s health issues, stress, insomnia, digestive problems, lowered immunity, and even allergies. In fact, acupuncture works best when applied to problems that Western medicine has trouble treating effectively or without drugs and their often significant side effects.

But remember, traditional Chinese medicine is empirical — not “folk medicine.” In other words, the positive and negative effects of certain types of treatments have been observed and passed down over the centuries by physicians trained in sophisticated medical schools all over China. Long ago, acupuncture points were discovered by comparing a given problem to sore points. Treating these points could alleviate disease by causing a beneficial change via the nervous and blood vessel systems.

Using MRIs and other high-tech imaging, we now know that needles inserted into the body:

  1. Activate nerve pathways locally,
  2. Which send impulses to the spinal cord that ascend to the brain;
  3. The signal for pain relief then travels back down the spinal cord to specific locations;
  4. Which causes the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers.
  5. The result: Acupuncture works especially well in people suffering from arthritis, migraines, and chronic back, neck and shoulder pain.