In the past two blog posts I have tried to give a better understanding about acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Qi does not mean ‘energy’, but air or oxygen and the ‘meridians’ should be translated as ‘vessels’, as in blood vessels. This is not to say that there is not energy in the body, just to point out how acupuncture was developed and put into practice by the ancient Chinese. Now I would like to try to put it all together and show you how acupuncture works.
The majority of people who seek out acupuncture come for pain. Actually they tend to come once the pain becomes chronic which can be defined as a pain that has persisted for more than three months.
Did you know that pain is a theory?
Scientists still do not know how pain works, especially chronic pain.
The best theory I have come across is the following. To feel pain, there are two nerves involved. The first are sensory pain nerves called nociceptors. They tell the brain there is a pain, but not the location of the pain. There are two types of nociceptors, A Delta fibers that produce sharp, burning pains, and C fibers that give off dull, throbbing pains. The second are proprioceptive nerve fibers, which tell the brain the localisation of the pain. Both nerves send signals up the back of the spine to the midbrain. Once the midbrain receives the signal, it releases endorphins / enkephalins that bind to pain receptors along the spine and the capillary beds where the pain exists in order to reduce pain. Unfortunately, it seems that in people with chronic pain the proprioceptive neural threshold is too low. The signal to the midbrain is weak and the midbrain fails to release the endorphins. That is why people with chronic pain cannot pinpoint the exact location of the pain. It gets worse though. Because the brain receives a pain signal, the brain tricks the painful area into feeling stiff because the brain doesn’t want you using that body part. The brain also restricts blood flow to the area willing to sacrifice the body part in order to save the rest. But the body part needs good blood flow in order to heal the area. The whole thing becomes a vicious circle.
Basically, acupuncture increases blood flow to the damaged area and jumps the signal strength on the proprioceptive pathway in order to wake up the midbrain and release endorphins.
It ‘re-boots’ the proprioceptive nerve pathway.
After a few hours or days, the signal gets weak again, and the person with chronic pain needs to be treated again in order to stimulate the signal another time. The person needs their neural signal threshold to be stimulated repeatedly until the body remembers and re-establishes the normal threshold to signal the brain. This is why it is important to create a schedule with your acupuncturist and seek treatment multiple times.