LIVING WELL: Acupuncture is a brain thing
DR. MARK KESTNER, Post Columnist
Thursday, July 25, 2013 12:00 am
Today, hundreds of millions of people use acupuncture for relief around the world, but for many Americans it still seems new.
Because we did not grow up with acupuncture being a normal health care procedure, it seems foreign to us. Yet, throughout history, more people have been treated with acupuncture than with modern drugs.
Although there have been traditional explanations offered for the effectiveness of acupuncture, in view of our current understanding of how the body functions physiologically these explanations are inadequate.
According to ancient Chinese traditions, there are energy circuits running throughout the body known as meridians. Through these meridians, there is a flow of energy known to the Chinese as chi (chee). In Japanese language, it is called ki.
The flow of chi can theoretically be blocked or restricted. Because it is closely associated with the health and function of all of the various parts of the body, whenever chi is restricted this can affect the vitality of the organs and systems.
According to tradition, acupuncture stimulates various energetic points on the body in such as way as to restore normal flow of chi, therefore restoring normal function to the body.
For most practicing acupuncturists and many patients that explanation is enough. However, for medical and clinical acupuncturists, traditional theories are just the starting point of understanding how the method works.
I have studied acupuncture for more than two decades. I began my study like every other acupuncture provider, by studying the Chinese traditions.
Even though these traditional theories often contrast with our current physiological understanding of the human body, they still work as a model to explain the effects of acupuncture. In other words, if one simply follows the guidelines of the ancient traditions in using acupuncture, a good outcome is likely.
In my view, however, it is insufficient to simply mimic the ancient practitioners in practicing acupuncture. I have found enhancing the practice of acupuncture by incorporating modern contemporary physiological models brings about profound improvement in outcomes.
In my experience, if I use my clinical training in modern physiology in addition to the ancient conceptual traditions, patients get better faster and stay better longer.
From a modern viewpoint, acupuncture works through the nervous system.
By stimulating various nerves in traditional and non-traditional ways, the acupuncture provider can affect the central nervous system.
Research has repeatedly shown acupuncture stimulation has a direct effect on the functioning of the brain. More specifically, it affects the portion of the brain that is associated with pain perception as well as body regulation.
This research goes a long way to explain how acupuncture reduces chronic pain, as well as helps regulate normal body functions.
I routinely treat people with problems like chronic joint pain with acupuncture. It works very well and most often completely resolves the pain.
I have seen several patients lately with ongoing chronic shoulder or knee pain. They have found that acupuncture resolved the pain completely even though we did nothing to the internal structures of the joint.
In these cases, acupuncture has an effect both on the local tissue, that is the muscles and connective tissue, as well as on the nervous system.
Research functional magnetic resonance imaging suggests acupuncture stimulation directly affects the limbic system of the brain, which is involved with chronic pain. The limbic system is a collection of structures within the brain that control many various aspects of our everyday functions.
This begins to explain how acupuncture can benefit patients with such a wide range of clinical issues.
In addition, acupuncture stimulation can reduce the involuntary muscular contraction that is partly responsible for joint mechanical distortions.
From a regulatory standpoint, acupuncture seems to literally balance the body in some ways.
As an example, women who have been having hot flashes will often respond very quickly to acupuncture, as will patients who have been experiencing anxiety.
Digestive issues also respond well.
As research goes forward, more will be learned about how acupuncture helps the brain work better.