As you can imagine, I’m often asked how does acupuncture work? I love answering that question, because often times people have no idea and even a lot of acupuncturists don’t understand the mechanisms by which acupuncture works. But it is hard to explain this in a short time I have. Hence I wrote this article to refer my patients and whoever else is interested in the topic.
First, let’s look at the different models of acupuncture. There are several models of acupuncture that have been developing since the 50’s when the early acupuncture research began.
A good model needs to explain all the neurophysiological (involving brain and control of bodily processes) and growth control factors (diffusible signaling proteins that stimulate cell growth, differentiation, survival, inflammation, and tissue repair) that account for the effects of acupuncture.
A better model is the one that makes confirmed predictions, rather than the one that’s based on past observations. For instance, the Neurophysiological Model of acupuncture prediction of the anti-inflammatory effects of acupuncture have been confirmed through the effects of endorphins on pain and inflammation.
The Electrophysiology Model of Acupuncture
This model suggests that acupuncture works by altering the electrical activity of the body through the system of acupuncture points and meridians. It’s been established the acupoints as well as the meridian system are located at the junction of muscles where there is high density of connective tissue planes. These planes have a greater electrical conductance than the non-meridian segments.
Specialized equipment is used to measure changes in electrical activity during acupuncture treatment, and found that acupuncture points are able to alter brain activity and the activity of certain hormones and neurotransmitters.
The high electric conductance at acupoints is further supported by finding of high density of gap junctions. Gap junctions are protein complexes that form channels between adjacent cells. It is well established in cell biology that gap junctions facilitate intercellular communication via bioelectricity and small molecules, increase electric conductance and the development of the embryo.
Neurophysiological Model of Acupuncture
The neurophysiological model of acupuncture proposes that acupuncture works by affecting the nervous system. According to this model, acupuncture stimulates specific points on the body – acupuncture points that are connected to nerve pathways. The stimulation of these points is believed to trigger the release of chemicals in the brain and spinal cord, such as endorphins, which can help to reduce pain and promote healing.
Some research has supported the neurophysiological model of acupuncture, including studies that have found that acupuncture activates certain brain regions and increases the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. This mechanism may form the basis for the treatment of smoking cessation for example. Or by affecting other pain-modulating neurotransmitters such as endorphin and substance P, acupuncture has been extremely predictive in the treatment of pain.
Growth Model of Acupuncture
In developmental biology, a network of organizers is a group of cells that play a critical role in the development of the body plan. These cells produce signaling molecules that help to guide the differentiation and patterning of the developing embryo.
One of the best-known examples of a network of organizers is the neural crest, which is a group of cells that arise from the neural tube (the precursor to the central nervous system) during development. The neural crest cells migrate throughout the developing embryo and give rise to a variety of cell types, including neurons, glial cells, and cells of the peripheral nervous system. Other examples of networks of organizers in embryogenesis include the primitive streak (which helps to establish the body axis in the developing embryo) and the Hensen’s node (which helps to establish the left-right axis).
To put it in a different way, out of an ocean of undifferentiated cells, some number of individual cells will be formed out of these cells into a region of collective that has a control over what these cells turn into, be that a body part or a tissue. This network of organizers guide individual cells to their purpose, since individual cells don’t have goals.
The way organizer cells communicate to surrounding cells is through morphogens. Morphogens are substances that help to pattern developing tissues by creating concentration gradients that provide positional information helping cells to differentiate and form specific structures. Morphogens communicate via bioelectricity and growth factors and guide morphogenesis (the process by which an organism’s shape develops). Organizers are also located at the extremes of curvature, where the surface morphology is more complicated. There are many gap junctions in the vicinity of organizer points.
In the section Electrophysiology Model of acupuncture I discussed gap junctions and how they facilitate communication between cells. This should start to ring some bells by now. So yeah, the organizer points and acupuncture points are one and the same.
To summarize, acupuncture points originate from organizer points and use morphogens, bioelectricity and messaging molecules to communicate with nearby cells to promote morphogenesis and regeneration – the main effects of acupuncture.
Also in the section of the electrophysiological model of acupuncture we discussed that acupuncture points as well as meridian systems are located on boundaries of muscles where there is high density of connective tissue planes. These connective tissue planes are known for their high electrical conductivity as well as high concentration of gap junctions which help create the systemic effect that is so well established in acupuncture.
Meridians and Growth Model.
In the growth control model, organizer points are distributed along the paths of connective tissue usually at the boundaries or folds, also known as separatrix. These boundaries are created during the embryogenesis as the embryo serarates in different domains, such as different organs, tissues and structures.
There’s similarly higher electrical activity at those junctions and higher density of gap junctions at these boundaries just as in organizer points where the process of morphogenesis and regeneration takes place. This doesn’t stop at the embryo level, but continues into adulthood though be it at slower speed.
Some of the morphogenic pathways during the embryogenesis.
During embryogenesis, there are several signaling pathways that regulate the process of muscle development and differentiation. Some of the key pathways include the following:
- The Wnt signaling pathway: This pathway is involved in the formation of the body axis and plays a role in the development of the somites, which give rise to the muscles of the body.
- The FGF signaling pathway: This pathway is involved in the formation of the limb buds and plays a role in the development of the muscles of the limbs.
- The Notch signaling pathway: This pathway is involved in the formation of the somites and plays a role in the differentiation of muscle precursor cells.
- The Myogenic regulatory factors (MRFs): These transcription factors, such as MyoD, Myf5, myogenin, and MRF4, are responsible for the determination of muscle progenitor cells, the activation of muscle-specific gene expression, and the differentiation of muscle fibers.
- The TGF-beta signaling pathway: This pathway plays a role in the regulation of muscle development and differentiation.
Many acupuncture points are located on the junctions of these domains thus coinciding with connective tissue planes separating these tissues.
Acupuncture points have the highest voltage flow and generate electrical signals as well as act as a gate. This is a precise definition of a transistor. Therefore, just as the transistor, they can be used to configure body programming and they are.
As we age, we accumulate imbalances and blockages further away from our original “blueprint”. But no matter how much junk we accumulate, the body still holds the information of its original blueprint. Granted, the further away we are from the blueprint, the harder it is to regain homeostasis. But, nevertheless, the potential is always there.
A skilled acupuncturist should be able to use the body as an electrical circuit stimulating the right points and sedating the others to achieve the goal of rebalancing the body.
In summary, I view acupuncture as an electrical tuning system that communicates to our ancient and very primitive blueprint the body holds in its genetic memory, and it allows it to tap into this mechanism to check for errors, improve imbalances and promote healing.