The National Institutes of Health has provided a number of thoughts about how acupuncture might be something that generates advantageous health results.
A number of studies done involving both humans and animals have demonstrated that acupuncture is able to trigger numerous biological responses. Such responses might occur locally, meaning they are close to or even at the application site, or from a distance, as sensory neurons of many structures across the central nervous system might mediate the results. All of this can lead to pathways being activated that impact a multitude of physiological systems in both the brain and the periphery. A lot of attention has been specifically paid to the role of endogenous opioids in terms of acupuncture analgesia. There’s a substantial amount of evidence supporting the idea that opioid peptides get released during acupuncture, which could potentially explain to some degree why acupuncture has analgesic effects. This hypothesis is further bolstered by the fact that opioid antagonists, like naloxone, for instance, can reverse acupuncture’s analgesic effects. Acupuncture provides stimulation that might prove activating to both the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, which result in a wide variety of systemic effects. There has been documented alteration in secretions of both neuro-hormones and neurotransmitters as well as changes in how blood flow is regulated, both peripherally and centrally. There’s also some evidence that acupuncture produces alterations in things like immune functions. At the time of writing, it’s unclear if clinical effects are mediated by these or any other physiological changes.
Even though there’s been significant effort put into understanding the physiology and anatomy of so-called “acupuncture points,”, the characterization and definition of such points remain quite controversial.
Recognized Fundamental Concepts
What proves even more elusive is finding any scientific bases for a number of fundamental concepts central to traditional Eastern medicine, include the meridian system and the circulation of Qi. These can be hard to reconcile with what’s currently known about bio-medicine, and yet they play integral roles in how patients are evaluated in acupuncture and how their treatment is formulated.
A number of the biological effects that acupuncture has have been observed even when ‘sham’ points were the ones being stimulated, which just illustrates how important it is to define proper control groups when there is any assessment of biological changes supposedly related to acupuncture. Findings like these do raise questions regarding how specific such biological changes might be. Additionally, similar biological alterations including blood pressure changes and the release of various endogenous opioids have been observed after the introduction of relaxation training, vigorous exercise, and painful stimuli. At the time of writing, it’s not yet clear as to the extent to which acupuncture shares any similar biological mechanisms.
It needs to be noted that for many forms of therapeutic intervention, including that of acupuncture, these ‘non-specific’ effects actually make up most of the effectiveness, and as such, they can’t be discounted mildly or casually dismissed. A lot of factors can impact the outcome of a therapeutic intervention, including patient expectations, the level of trust between a patient and clinician, their general relationship, and how compatible their belief systems or backgrounds are.
Even though there is a lot that is currently not known about which mechanisms might mediate acupuncture’s therapeutic effects, it’s indeed encouraging that numerous and substantial biological changes related to acupuncture are able to be both identified and then carefully delineated.
More research into all of this is not only crucial for broadening the scientific understanding of acupuncture, but also to hopefully tap into the potential of finding new pathways into the broader human physiology that have yet to be explored in systemic manners.