One of the most common questions that comes up in the clinic is “how does acupuncture work?” It is an absolutely valid question and practitioners should no longer be in a position where they are unable to provide some insight into the topic. While there are many theories as to how acupuncture functions, a few we have discussed in the past, this particular article will go into the neuroscience perspective of acupuncture functionality.
The first of two theories to be presented in this article is the concept of neuroplasticity. Simply put, this is the idea that the brain is constantly learning, growing and changing through experiences that occur from external stimulus. This process is seen in things such as the accumulation of knowledge as well as physical training of the body.
Imagine a dirt road that you have never driven on. It will be a bumpy ride for awhile but if you keep driving then eventually your car will make lasting tracks in the dirt so that future trips are much more easy. The brain works exactly the same way – the first few times you attempt something, it may be difficult with little result but the more you stick to it the easier it becomes.
Acupuncture can be the catalyst that helps to create a new pathway in the brain but it aims to take the patient from a state of disease to a state of ease. This is why it will always take several sessions to notice a significant difference but the purpose of acupuncture is to restore homeostasis (balance) and as such it will happen given time.
The second theory is that of the human homunculus. This theory in neuroscience is linked to phantom limb pain – the phenomenon where a person can lose a limb yet still feel it present. The reason for this is because though the physical limb is missing, it is still mapped out on the brain. When viewing the brain and the positioning of all the limbs, a small humanoid is created and that has been labelled the human homunculus.
What does this have to do with acupuncture? Well since the acupuncture points/channels are mapped out on the body and all the body parts are mapped out on the brain – the stimulation of these points and channels on the body will have an effect on the brain thus creating new neurological pathways towards the goal of balance and better health.
In summary, there are many different explanations for how acupuncture works and within the realm of neuroscience it is theorized that acupuncture draws effectiveness from both the concepts of neuroplasticity and of the human homunculus to create new pathways within the brain towards better health through external stimulation.