Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine

In This Section:

What Can Acupuncture Treat?

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Actually the title of this section is incorrect as it is not really Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine (AOM), but rather Acupuncture is part of Oriental Medicine.  Oriental Medicine, also known as Asian Medicine, is an umbrella term which includes acupuncture, herbal medicine, diet and nutrition and exercise such as qi gong and tai qi.  Not all acupuncturists are trained in all areas of Oriental Medicine.

Oriental Medicine is a complete form of medicine just as Allopathic medicine is.  Allopathic medicine, although the term is used a little bit incorrectly here, is the type of medicine commonly practiced in the West. Being a complete form of medicine, AOM has the ability to treat a wide range of health issues.  AOM is truly a holistic form of medicine that has developed over thousands of years into an effective form of health care.

What can be treated by AOM?

The World Health Organization has a list they produced many years ago and you can find this online.  I believe this list falls short of the true potential of AOM.  AOM is by no means a magic bullet for what ails us as it offers superior results for some health issues and is less effective for others.  This is true with any form of medicine.  AOM can treat acute problems as well as chronic problems and is well suited for treating chronic health issues.  AOM can be used independent of conventional medicine or in conjunction with conventional medicine.  A partial list of more commonly treated problems includes but is not limited to the following:


Low back pain

Neck pain



Shoulder injuries

Plantar Fasciitis



Hip Pain


Colds / Flu

Immune weakness

Numbness / Tingling

Breast pathology

Carpal Tunnel

Menopause symptoms Premenstrual Syndrome Menstrual Cramps TMJ

Cancer Treatment

Digestive problems

Urinary tract


Hormone imbalance

Arthritis pain

Stroke Rehab

Knee pain

How Does Acupuncture Work

Acupuncture is an extremely effective method for treating health problems, and in particular, pain related problems.  In fact, in the majority of pain related complaints, acupuncture will dramatically reduce or eliminate pain rapidly, often times within seconds of treating the proper area of the body.  Although acupuncture can treat non pain related problems, I will use pain in this article to explain how acupuncture works.

Although the number of people utilizing acupuncture has grown rapidly over the years, the majority of people with chronic pain continue to seek medication, surgery, or other approaches to pain that are arguably mostly ineffective.  Why is this?  There are many studies showing the effectiveness of acupuncture, acupuncture is being taught in some medical schools, the National Institutes of Health has a positive position paper on the use of acupuncture, acupuncture has been shown to be superior to conventional treatment for a variety of pain related problems, and if other acupuncture practices are like ours, around 90 percent of patients respond very well to treatment.

So why the relatively slow adoption of acupuncture in the West?  There are multiple reasons, with the most common reasons being lack of insurance coverage (this has been changing over the years and now most of our patients are covered by insurance), fear of needles, more familiarity with other forms of care such as chiropractic and physical therapy, etc.  I believe the primary reason is lack of understanding of just what acupuncture is and how well it works.  Due to one individual’s mistranslation of a major Chinese medicine text in the 1930’s, Soulie de Morant was responsible for turning Chinese Medicine, of which acupuncture is a part, into an “energy medicine”.  Acupuncture was always based on anatomy and physiology, but due to translational errors, Soulie de Morant was responsible for introducing the translation of the Chinese word “Qi” as energy, or life force, and the idea of the existence of an invisible meridian system in which Qi flows, and published his work.  Unfortunately, this mistranslation caught on and was incorporated into the AOM (Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine) schools outside of Asia.  This belief in unseen energy and meridians resulted in Western medicine looking at AOM as nothing more than quackery, and only the brave few would initially go see an “energy doctor”.

Because, (or at least in part) of this energy concept, people that would benefit from acupuncture would not seek treatment and their physicians would either simply not refer their patients or would attack acupuncture as quackery.  Although many acupuncturists hold on to this energy medicine idea, the reality is acupuncture is a physical medicine and when explained this way it is gaining greater and greater acceptance.  In fact the American Academy of Pain Management, an organization made up mostly of medical doctors, has brought in an acupuncturist twice to speak at one of their conventions and the explanation of how acupuncture works was enthusiastically accepted.  Acupuncture works very well, a fact we know from clinical experience clinical trials and research.  But without a sound understanding of why it works, acupuncture could not be easily accepted in the West.  When acupuncture is understood for what it actually is, it is readily embraced by the medical community and the public.  This article will provide you with a condensed version of how acupuncture works.

Before I begin, those of you with some familiarity of acupuncture have heard the words Qi, meridian and acupuncture point.  Let’s see what these words really mean if we look at the ancient Chinese medical text, the Huang di Nei jing, where Chinese medicine is explained in detail.

Qi: Qi is correctly translated as “vital air”, or “function of”, not “energy” or “life force”.   For example the term “Kidney qi deficiency” means the function of the kidneys is weak.  “Vital air” refers to the component in air that is vital for life, and that is of course oxygen.  Qi has nothing to do with invisible energy.  This is not to say our bodies are not energetic in nature, we have known for a long time that all matter is simply energy vibrating at different frequencies.  Maybe this energy is manipulated through acupuncture.  But this is not what the foundation of acupuncture is about.  Acupuncture is a physical medicine, just like any other physical medicine, and can be explained with anatomy and physiology.

Meridian: The term meridian came into use courtesy of Soulie de Morant when he incorrectly translated the words Jing Mai, which correctly translated refers to a vessel, as in blood vessel, and defined it as an energy vessel.  The reason no cadaver dissection has ever identified a meridian is they do not exist.  By the way, later in life Soulie de Morant admitted he mistranslated Jing Mai, but for some reason the original mistranslation has stuck.

Acupuncture point: The words “acupuncture point” does not even exist in the Huang Di Nei Jing.  The proper translation is neural node.  This gives us insight into how acupuncture works.  Acupuncture works through normalization of the nervous system.

Acupuncture: The word acupuncture does not exist in the ancient texts.  The original meaning translates to needle therapy.

So how does acupuncture work?

There are multiple theories, all of them based on how acupuncture effects our nervous and hormonal systems.  The one theory that makes the most sense can be summarized as follows.  More on the specifics shortly.

•  Mediates change through the nervous system

•  Increases circulation (blood, oxygen, nutrients) to all tissues of the body

•  Reduces Inflammation

•  Reduces pain immediately through the release of enkephalins (body's pain killers) and long term through improved circulation and healing of the tissues

•  Stimulates healing of tissues and organs in part through normalizing function of the nervous system and improved blood flow

The research of individuals such as Bruce Pomeranz, MD, PhD, from the University of Toronto, has led to an understanding of how our neuroendocrine system is regulated by acupuncture.  Another group has been promoting a neuroanatomical approach to acupuncture called the Integrative Neuromuscular Acupoint System (INMAS).  Research has continued into just how acupuncture works and we now have a rational, scientific explanation, or more correctly hypothesis as to how acupuncture works.   I say hypothesis because this explanation is likely only a piece of the puzzle.  It's a major piece, but as with all scientific discoveries it is subject to being expanded or modified in some way as additional information becomes available.

For the sake of brevity, the following explanation is a little over simplified.  As it is always proper to give credit where credit is due, the following explanation is the work of Bob Doane, L.Ac.  This explanation is built on the work of Donald Edward Kendall in his book The Dao of Chinese Medicine.

When you injure yourself, let's say for example, your low back, your body responds by initially increasing blood flow to the area, but if the area does not heal properly, blood flow to the injured area becomes restricted, thereby reducing nutrient rich, oxygenated blood flow to the injured area.  This blood flow is necessary for healing.  Additionally your motor nerves (the nerves that allow for movement) attempt to inhibit movement of the injured area, thereby preventing further injury.   As a result you experience chronic low back pain, stiffness, numbness, tingling, and the injury and pain never resolves and your sensory nerves fire continuously.   Until the abnormal firing of the involved nerves is resolved, you will have pain.  This is the underlying cause of the vast majority of chronic pain, pain we refer to as neuropathic pain.  Other causes of pain might include cancers, structural changes such as narrowing of nerve pathways that put pressure directly on nerves, etc.  These problems are usually best resolved with surgery.  But this is relatively rare given the number of people suffering with pain.  Even following surgery, the just discussed mechanism may come into play and even if the surgery successfully resolved the structural problem, the pain may continue, and often times does.

Your nervous system contains sensory (touch, pain, etc.), motor (allows for movement) and proprioceptive (tells your brain where your body is in space and where pain is coming from) nerve fibers.  Essentially proprioceptive nerves tells our brain where neighboring parts of our body are relative to one another and where pain is coming from.

One plausible and certainly clinically applicable explanation of chronic pain is our nervous system stops responding appropriately to pain.  It is felt this is related to abnormal proprioceptive nerve function.  When this occurs, the normal cascade of healing activity does not occur in the area of injury and pain continues unabated.

When an acupuncture needle is inserted, the body responds both locally, at the site of insertion, and systemically, or throughout the body.  Locally there is a release of chemicals that improve white blood cell activity in the area of injury, reduce inflammation, increase blood flow and promote healing of the local tissue.   Systemically, changes are initiated through the nervous system.  Once the proprioceptive neural threshold is jumped (the nerves fire as they should) by insertion of an acupuncture needle, it sends signals to the brain via the spinal cord which results in a release of your bodies pain killers known as enkephalins.  These are very strong, naturally occurring opiates, and the pain will immediately decrease.  Once this happens your body will increase blood flow to the injured tissue and stop or reduce the inhibition of motor nerves allowing the stiffness to decrease and resolve.  Subsequently, our bodies begin to heal.  Concurrent with these physiologic changes, our body becomes relaxed which aids the healing process.

Since the majority of chronic pain is related to neuropathic pain (pain caused not by structural problems, but rather irritation or trauma to the nerves), and reduced blood flow to injured tissues, acupuncture is more often than not the most direct, most rapid and most complete way to address these problems.  Clinically this is borne out by the rapid, often times near instantaneous reduction or elimination of pain, numbness, tingling, etc.   It should be pointed out that once your nervous system begins responding properly to the area of injury, and the blood flow increases, unless there is a significant underlying structural problem (major disk herniation, cancer, etc.) the tissue will most often heal and the problem will resolve.  Acupuncture is not meant to be simply a symptom treatment.  Acupuncture heals the problem at the root cause.  There is no other treatment I am aware of that exerts as direct and as powerful an effect as acupuncture.

The elegance of acupuncture when treating pain is it will either work, or it won't and you will know this very quickly.  It simply is not necessary to obtain treatment after treatment after treatment for weeks and month on end waiting for something to improve.

You can hear what some of our patients experiences have been by looking at both the video and written testimonials on our web site.

Understanding how acupuncture works, and how we use acupuncture to treat the body is important.  We encourage you to share this information with others as well as your experience in our clinic.

As an important side note, I have referred to the use of acupuncture primarily in the context of pain treatment rather than internal medicine problems.  Although acupuncture can be effective at treating internal medicine problems, some quite well, typically acupuncture finds its greatest benefit in the treatment of pain and injuries.  Internal medicine problems are usually, but not always, treated most effectively with medicinal herbs, nutrition, exercise, proper diet, etc.

If you have any questions give us a call, send an email, or best of all, schedule your free consultation.  We look forward to meeting you and helping in any way we can.

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