Many people show interest in acupuncture, but have no idea what it really means. For some it's just a novel concept, a fun new activity they could talk about at a dinner party. However, for more and more people, acupuncture plays an important role in one's life to help maintain health, prevent disease, stop pain, and promote the healing process. One of the most studied aspects of acupuncture is its ability to stop pain. So how does this actually work? As I've stated before, acupuncture is the most studied manual therapy with an amazing assortment of research being done on this ancient technique---specifically regarding pain. PAIN, we all know it and we all want to avoid it...what's worse than constantly being reminded of your aches and constant pains. My brother once said to me, "Pain is just weakness leaving the body" and that made me want to smack him. Yea, I'll show him pain. But here's the thing--while it's necessary to life, it doesn't have to define you, and for many people acupuncture has helped relieve this pain.
So...how the hell does sticking a needle under the skin on your foot relieve your headache? And why are the small needles in the ear supposed to help with my back pain? Now, I could do a whole post on the theory of acupuncture channels and their pathways, and the years of studying it took to learn the theory behind this. I could also talk about the new and exciting research happening that seems to prove the existence of these so called 'channels'. But right now, lets stick to pain (pun intended).
Here are some of the many theories surrounding acupuncture's great success around pain relief.
1) Natural Opioid Substances: I know you've heard of opioids, you've listened to Janis Joplin right? Well, opioids are not just drugs that people took in the late 60s, but they are also naturally occurring substances found in the body. Needling seems to affect these substances--specifically the Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) concentrations of the naturally occurring opiate substances: dynorphin (acting at a spinal level), endorphin (acting within the brain), and encephalin (acting both in the brain and at a spinal level). Okay, so why is this important? WELL, endorphins and enkephalins are potent blockers or modulators of pain arising from the musculoskeletal system. Dynorphin is a powerful modulator of visceral pain; it has a weaker effect on musculoskeletal pain modulation. So in other words...they help stop pain. Actually, they help reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. However, in contrast to the opiate drugs, activation of the opiate receptors by the body's endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. So basically, acupuncture can stimulate the body's natural opiate receptors but it WON'T lead to an untimely death. Too soon?
In addition to decreased feelings of pain, secretion of endorphins leads to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress.
Here's a clinical review entitled "Acpuncture & Endorphins."
2) The Neurogate Theory: Tested on this study on rats, says that fibers that are stimulated by acupuncture could prevent pain input into the spinal cord. The diffuse noxious inhibitory control theory says that by providing a noxious stimulation (i.e. a non-painful stimulation by an acupuncture needle), the body responds by changing the signals it receives from the painful area being treated. You experience this when you bump your elbow, and it hurts less when you rub it, or the "Honey! I hurt my knee! Can you please massage my back??"
3) Activating the Immune System: The presence of a foreign needle (sterilized single use needle) may act to stimulate vascular and immuno-modulatory factors, including those of local inflammation. Adrenocorticotrophic hormone has been shown to be elevated after acupuncture treatments, suggesting that adrenal activation and the release of endogenous corticosteroids may also result (yes, corticosteroids---the same ones your doctor prescribes). Again, what does this mean? It means that sticking needles in your body creates a micro-trauma which in turn stimulates the activity of immune cells that control inflammation. This is GOOD.
Chris Kresser further delves into the subject: