Find an acupuncturist...

What is the technique for acupuncture?

Q:  What exactly do the needles do to effect a cure. Do they touch nerves for instance?  Is there some sort of chain reaction?  I would like to understand this technique before using it. In the past I did have acupuncture for migraine but do not understand how it works.

A:Many of our patients believe that acupuncture works by touching nerves, and indeed one of the main theories of western medical acupuncture is based on the neurophysiological consequences of putting needles into tissue with significant amount of nerves.
However, Chinese medicine has an entirely different understanding of the body, mind and spirit. In Chinese thought, everything is regarded as a manifestation of energy, which the Chinese call 'qi', and the human body in all its complexity is understood as a flow of qi which has distinct patterns and rhythms. These patterns can be disrupted by external causes like climate and food, but also internal causes like strong emotions or mental strains. Because everything is interlinked, blockages or disruptions in the flow of energy can have effects on all sorts of levels - a physical pain will often be accompanied by a corresponding mental or emotional state which may not appear to be related at first sight to the primary problem- and also a problem in one area can ramify to create problems in other areas. This is why traditional Chinese medicine practice does not place all of its reliance on symptoms; these may simply be secondary problems where the main problem lies elsewhere and may not even be generating symptoms itself.
This world view is not unique to China. The Japanese have the concept of 'ki' and Indian culture has a concept of 'prana', both of which fulfil the same sorts of function in understanding how the body, and indeed the world, can be understood and treated. This is vastly different from mainstream western thought which has rejected this kind of theory, sometimes called 'monism' which rests on a belief in a single universal substance from which everything is made. Instead in the West the dualism which has held sway since Descartes is very much predicated on a material substance in the world which can be understood in purely mechanical ways, and something of a different order on mind and soul which is not reducible to a physical state.
That said, at the cutting edge of scientific thought in quantum physics, some interesting parallels are starting to emerge, and it is highly possible that the next hundred years will see ancient Chinese medicine theory being better understood within mainstream science as these state of the art understandings start to permeate more popularly understood science.
The use of acupuncture needles, therefore, is to influence the flow of energy and to make good areas of the body where the flow of qi has been compromised. With a 2000 year history acupuncture has a wealth of sophisticated means of diagnosing and treating imbalance, and while the basics are relatively easy to learn, by contrast to the highly complex training in Western medicine, the application of these principles can involve a lifetime's endeavour. The saying used to be that Western medicine was hard to learn but once learned easy to practice, whereas Eastern medicine was easy to learn but very hard to practice. So much depends of the observational and sensory skills of the practitioner, and requires a level of development beyond day to day experience. This is why we sometimes describe our work as mastery of an art rather than technical knowledge of a skill.
In the end, though, there will always be patients for whom taking this on board is a step too far, and all we can say to them is that we are happy to be judged by our results.  

Post a question

If you have any questions about acupuncture, browse our archive or ask an expert.

Ask an expert

BAcC Factsheets

Research based factsheets have been prepared for over 60 conditions especially for this website

Browse the facts