Dr Delanghe, Waterloo Chiropractor

Acupuncture Part 1: Origins and mechanism of action


What is Acupuncture?

Modern acupuncture is defined as a therapeutic technique in which sharp, thin needles are inserted into specific points on the body. Mechanical, electrical or physical stimulation is sometimes added to the needle to increase the effect. Needles are inserted into acupuncture points, aka: acupoints which were first established in traditional Chinese medicine.

Classical vs. Anatomical Acupuncture: What’s the difference?

Classical acupuncture is based on Tradition Chinese Medicine (TCM). Ancient Chinese believed that everything in the universe was energy. The philosophy that emerged from this thinking is called Taoism which translates to the energy of the universe. The energy is also referred to as Qi (chi).

Qi consists of two equal and opposing energies, Yin and Yang and is commonly represented by the picture above. The curved line represents movement and dynamic fluid between the 2 energies. They are mutually supportive and interdependent.

It was believed that Qi flows through the body along energy channels (referred to as meridians) and could flow into specific sites aka: acupoints. If Qi was deficient, blocked, or out of balance, symptoms such as pain would appear. Needling these sites relieved the symptoms by unblocking and restoring flow of Qi and re-establishing energy balance in the body.

Anatomical acupuncture was originated by Dr. Joseph Wong in the mid 1970s and bridges the gap between TCM and Western medicine. The acupoints are chosen based on anatomy and physiology.

The main difference between classical and anatomical acupuncture is the paradigm used in the selection of points.

The Points

Early studies show most acupoints are located on or near peripheral nerves. There is no evidence to support the existence of new or special structures under these acupoints, however, histological studies (ie: looking under a microscope) have shown a higher concentration of neural tissue and neuroactive components at acupoints compared to non-acupoints.

Neural tissues are the actual tissues themselves and include nerve endings and sensory receptors. Neuraoactive components are cells that release chemical mediators that can excite or inhibit signals to the brain.

The Neural Acupuncture Unit (NAU)

The NAU is a collection of the neural and neuroactive components surrounding the needle. In the diagram, the NAU is the area within the dotted lines. These tissues would be stimulated by the needle.

What Happens When the Needle is Inserted?

Local Effects

When a needle is inserted, it causes some damage to the issue near the insertion point, which stimulates a chain of biochemical reactions in your body. As a result, your body produces various inflammatory and immune response in the NAU. Basically, it is a micro-injury which does negligible harm to the body while creating a therapeutic response.acu2

Non-local Effects

Without getting too in-depth, the non-local effects involve altering pain signals through receptors in the spinal cord and how they relay messages to the brain. The nerve signals from the local tissue travel to the spinal cord and through complex mechanisms, block the original pain signals from getting to the brain.

Another area of the brain is also involved. The hypothalamus-pituitary complex (don’t have to remember this name!) is also stimulated when a needle is inserted and releases anti-inflammatory chemicals into the bloodstream that can help to reduce pain.

These local and systemic responses help to explain the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture.

In my next article, we’ll look at the effects that acupuncture can have for different injuries!


Wang, Kain, White. Acupuncture analgesia: I. The scientific basis. Pain Medicine. 2008

Zhang, Wang, McAlonan. Neural acupuncture unit: A new concept for interpreting effects and mechanisms of acupuncture. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012

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