How Does Acupuncture Work? | Calgary Acupuncture

Hello Calgary Acupuncture Enthusiasts!

I was thinking the other day on the nature of acupuncture and how it affects the body to allow healing to occur naturally. Every time I ponder this question I arrive at better and better ways of explaining it, though I still feel like my understanding is imperfect and incomplete. I don’t think that a 100% understanding of how the body works and heals is achievable, for we are learning something new every day. Today I will share my current thoughts on the mechanism of healing via acupuncture. This is not to be confused with what current scientific research is undertaking in their continued work on WHAT does acupuncture do to the body. The what is a much easier thing to observe and measure and I will examine this in other posts.

First, I’ll give a brief background of anatomy/physiology from the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective:

Our bodies contain, what we call in TCM, Meridians, and what a relatively newer branch of anatomical research in Western Medicine knows as Fascia. These Meridians are what connects everything in our body, top to bottom, inside and out and all around.

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Despite the commonly known thin line diagrams that make it seem like these meridians are very narrow and non-intersecting streams, the truth is that every inch of our body is covered by these meridians and every cell is connected via this pathway system. Instead of being separated by a few cm or inches, each meridian is separate via its depth in the body and the wavelength of the energy that runs along it, known as Qi in Chinese Medicine. This is one (of several) reason why research into the clinical efficacy of acupuncture is so inconclusive, however that is a discussion for another post.

In good health and in a relaxed state of mind, your bodies’ Qi runs along this meridian system in a particular sequence and direction. When there is a disruption to this flow of Qi, the signals reaching your cells are slightly altered and thus make it more difficult for your body to function optimally and heal from or overcome adversity. Conversely, when Qi is flowing smoothly and correctly through the meridian system, it is easier to heal from, withstand and overcome adversity or injury. The trouble often occurs in keeping this Qi flowing smoothly during and after such events and injuries, as these can cause temporary disruptions to the normal flow of Qi. If that temporary disruption is allowed to persist, it creates a chronic pattern that can disrupt health in the long term.

In Chinese Medicine, and Western Medicine is also coming to this understanding, the body and mind are inextricably linked. So, health or adversity can be physical or mental and the well-being or illness in one can, and will, affect the other in equal measure. One example of this is the link between chronic pain and depression. Explaining these links and how they operate is beyond the scope of this post but for simplicities sake keep in mind that thoughts and emotions can change the flow of Qi in the meridians and vice versa.

How can we use this information to help us with our health and wellness concerns?

I believe that well-being is our natural state and that problems to our health only arise when we are cut off from or do not allow this natural state of well-being to flourish. Firstly, what causes us to become cut off from our own well-being? To that, the answer is innumerable in its entirety and beyond the scope of this post. Here is a list of some of the more common that I see amongst my Calgary Acupuncture patients:

  • Overworking
    • Long hours, repetitive activities or over-training with inadequate rest
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    Stressed and Overworked

    Unresolved conflicts (both internal and external)

  • Stress (an extremely general term and everything in this list contributes to stress)
  • Poor Diet
    • often what people consider a healthy diet is, for them, not ideal for their constitution
  • Lack of engagement in enjoyable activities and pass-times
  • Negative beliefs about themselves, others or the world around them
  • Lack of fulfillment in their lives and work

So how on earth does acupuncture help with any of these you might ask? As you may have noticed, most of the items on this list are self-directed and self-imposed problems, so for true 100% healing to occur, some change must be undertaken by the patient to see lasting benefits. I have found that though acupuncture doesn’t directly change your thoughts, actions and beliefs about life, it does open the door to new or different thoughts and feelings and removes obstacles to either the awareness of the problem or its resolution.

Some of my patients have reported that even though they didn’t actively try to change their thoughts and beliefs, these changed “on their own” either during or soon following their acupuncture treatment. They just suddenly weren’t bothered by the same issues anymore, or found it easier to leave work on time and get home to their families, thus making better decisions with their diet and getting more sleep etc. All of those things combined have a positive cascade effect on all aspects of physical and mental health.

So HOW does the acupuncture do this?

Unfortunately I can’t give an exact biological and physiological explanation, and I’m not sure if anyone can at this point in time (if you can, please contact and enlighten me). Here is my explanation and an analogy that hopefully makes sense to you:

The proper application of acupuncture can force the body into a healthy Qi flow pattern, thus allowing the body to self-correct and heal from imbalance and injury. It can also, when accurately applied, soften and remove the blockages in the meridians that have been forcing Qi to flow incorrectly regardless of other positive influences that could otherwise have corrected it. A common example of a stubborn blockage is scar tissue and adhesions, they take time to remove and cause all sorts of havoc in the meantime.

And the analogy:

You are a gardener with a large and beautiful garden. You have saved yourself a lot of time and effort by setting up an automatic watering system via a series of interconnected soaker hoses, you are a genius and you can’t wait to enjoy some tasty fresh tomatoes. If all goes well, your garden should be evenly watered and low maintenance. Every day you turn the water on for an hour while you go do something else.

Now let’s say that at some point your child (or yourself!) was having a blast on his/her new dirt bike and drove over the hose halfway through garden causing a significant kink thus blocking the flow of water past that point. The next time you water the garden only half is getting any water, and it’s getting far too much.

Scenario A)

You notice the change and investigate the problem. Find the kink while it’s still new and fix it. There should be minimal consequences and your garden should go back to normal in a few days. You might water the dry side only for a day or two and give the wet side a chance to dry up a bit before returning to the automatic system. All is well, you have a variety of tasty vegetables.

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Happy, healthy garden

Scenario B)

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Something’s not right

You don’t check your garden that carefully and haven’t noticed that there is a major problem, maybe one side is a bit wilty looking, but whatever, you have an automatic watering system, it will be fine.

After a week or two, you’ve noticed that there is definitely a problem, one side is seriously dry, wilted and not growing, while the other side is also not growing, looking like a bit of a puddle and is starting to smell.

You investigate and discover the kink. At this point the hose might need some mild repair as the rubber is badly bent and weakened at the kink. You also need to do some serious garden care! With diligence, things return to normal and you have a variety of tasty vegetables.

Scenario C)

You’ve been very wrapped up in all the important things you need to do in your life and you pay very little attention to your garden. A month has gone by, one side is a desert with lifeless looking stems and some sturdy looking prickly weeds. While the other side is a verifiable swamp!! With slime and gunk and everything, even frogs!

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Nothing’s growing here

At this point fixing the garden will take MUCH more than just fixing the water flow. The soil needs to be rebalanced, the hose itself needs some major repairs as the one side has dried out and cracked and the other is filled with mud and mold. The plants might need a season or more to recover. There may also be some permanent changes to the foundation  beneath the topsoil that you’ll need to keep an eye on to make sure drainage and water flow within the garden remains balanced in the future.

In terms of using Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine:

Scenario A)

At this point you can often resolve the problem yourself with Qi Gong, meditation, yoga, good eating, resting etc. Acupuncture is very helpful and results are quick and often immediate and a very few treatments (1-3) are needed to return the body to good balance and harmony.

Scenario B)

Acupuncture will see you feeling better quickly but you may need to look at your diet and lifestyle and make some other small changes to see the best results. You may also seek out the help of another medical professional such as your MD, a chiropractor, psychologist, physical therapist etc as needed or advised.

Scenario C)

Though acupuncture will help to stop things from getting worse, much more is needed to return you and your body to a good state of health. In these scenarios, we usually need three or more of the five branches of Chinese Medicine, these are:

  • Acupuncture,
  • Chinese Herbal Medicine,
  • Moxibustion,
  • Cupping, Gua Sha or Tui Na,
  • Qi Gong,
  • and Diet Therapy,

as well as other types of healthcare providers, including those mentioned in scenario B. Western medicine is a very valuable tool at this point as you may need surgery, medication or some other strong intervention to get things to change quickly. If allowed to continue, scenario C would turn into a Sahara dessert vs. the Everglades situation; there are alligators in the everglades and they are terrifying.

The moral of the story is: pay close attention to your garden so that corrections and adjustments can be made before they turn into a longstanding and difficult problem.

However, if you (and I’m just as guilty of this) have allowed life to get in the way of your garden, it is never too late to start taking the steps necessary to get things back on track. If it all seems too much to do is overwhelming and you don’t know where to start, keep in mind that even one small step at a time can get you to your destination. It starts with a decision, the decision to take better care of yourself. Decision leads to action and action leads to change.

Good luck with your garden, and many happy harvests!

Click Here to book your Calgary Acupuncture Appointment today.

To learn more about Qi and the Meridians Click Here.

Your Calgary Acupuncturist,

Dr. Christianne Parrott

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