I really love what I do for a living.  Not only do I get to help people feel better and get healthy, I do it by practicing a medical tradition that has been in existence for thousands of years.  This leads to one of the challenges I find in my practice... answering the basic question of “How does it work?!?”.  I usually start by explaining to my patients the approach and theories that underly Chinese Medicine and acupuncture.   The basic concepts of Qi (energy) & meridian pathways and, stagnation & deficiency usually make sense on some level to most people,  but then there is that part of our brain that has been trained in the Western scientific method that wants more empirical evidence as to why acupuncture works.  I’ll even admit that while I fully embrace the core concepts that are the foundation of Chinese Medicine (and the key to viewing the body in a holistic way), curiosity as to which physical mechanisms occur in the body when you insert a needle has always intrigued me.I know from my practical experience that as we “move” stagnant qi with acupuncture a whole cascade of events can occur.  

In a general sense,  I see improvements in symptoms associated with all the systems of the body....circulatory, nervous, endocrine , digestive, respiratory and musculoskeletal to name a few.  This profound “head to toe” effect of the needles still amazes me every day in clinic.  Until recently, I found it difficult to refer patients to any of the Western scientific research being done, mainly because of the reductionist approach inherent in Western science.  In order to gain knowledge and truth in this system you need to “break things down” or reduce a whole to its component parts.  When you have a smaller “component” to study you can focus in and get a much deeper understanding of that particular piece of the puzzle.  There is certainly knowledge gained from this process, but sometimes you lose sight of the whole puzzle....or the “big picture”.  Acupuncture research often has focused on the efficacy of treatment of a particular Western medical condition, or the efficacy of a particular set of acupuncture points.  None of the research resonated with me on a holistic level.  I know acupuncture works, but I wanted to know the connection of the Qi theory to the physical body.  The answer to this (at least in part), ironically, is in the CONNECTIVE TISSUE of our bodies.


One of my patients shared an article with me from The Scientist magazine entitled  “The Science of Stretch” , by Helen M. Langevin.  I encourage you to click on the link to read the article in its entirety.  The focus of the research in this article is the connective tissue of the human body.  A portion of our bodies that many of us (and many scientists as well!) have taken for granted.  We talk about the specialized connective tissue such as the ligaments and tendons, especially when there is pain associated with trauma or injury to one.  But, the connective tissue, or fascia that acts as a protective sheath or net to contain all of the organs and muscles in our body is often overlooked.  As Langevin states, “the connective tissue is one of the most integral components of the human machine....so much so, one could draw a path from any two points in the body via a path of connective tissue”.  Pretty interesting....especially to an acupuncturist who is always talking about connections of points via the meridian system of the body.

The focus of the research was on the effect of STRETCHING this connective tissue. Without getting into the nitty gritty details (read the article for that!), Langevin found that prolonged stretching of the connective tissue had an effect of relaxing the tissue and causing the fibroblast cells within it to change shape and elongate.  She found that the acupuncture needle when placed in the tissue and “twisted” actually illicit this response.  The “reorganization” of these fibroblast cells actually trigger the release of “signaling” molecules, such as ATP.  The word SIGNALING is what really made this research resonate with me.  For years, I’ve described acupuncture as a subtle “signaling system”, a technique to give the body “directions” to initiate it’s own innate healing capabilities.  I always say that sometimes our bodies just need a nudge in the right direction to reduce inflammation, promote healing, and achieve a state of harmonious, dynamic balance.  Acupuncture can be that gentle nudge to break a person out of a state of imbalance, dis-ease, and pain.

So, do I think this research explains it all?  Certainly not.  But I do think it’s a great start to understanding the full body effect that acupuncture can have.  And don’t think for a minute that I’m about to abandon the Chinese theories that are at the heart of acupuncture.  This ancient knowledge cannot be discarded, no matter how much scientific research helps us to understand the physical phenomenon behind the “magic” of Qi!