Exploring The Science Behind Acupuncture
By Alexandra Wade - November 15, 2021

Acupuncture is the traditional Chinese medicine technique that goes back many years to treat chronic inflammation and an array of other health issues, but scientists are still trying o understand the scientific basis behind this Chinese method. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have discovered neurons that are necessary for acupuncture’s anti-inflammatory response. They found that these neurons occur specifically in the hindlimb region, which explains why acupuncture in this area works versus in the abdomen, which does not work. Qiufau Ma, lead investigator and HMS professor of neurobiology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute explains, “This study touches on one of the most fundamental questions in the acupuncture field: What is the neuroanatomical basis for body region, or acupoint, selectivity?” In recent years, Western medicine has embraced acupuncture as an alternative treatment for inflammation, overall wellness, and even stress management.

Getty Images/RooM/Nicolevanf

According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture points are on meridians, which is where vital energy, known as ‘qi’ or ‘chi’, runs through. The needles will usually stay in place anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes. Acupuncture incorporated both the mental and physical parts of the body. Acupuncture can be used to help treat digestive disorders, epilepsy, migraines, infertility, insomnia, arthritis, neck and back pain, facial pain, bell palsy, and much more. When speaking about the results of the study, Ma explained they provide “the first concrete, neuroanatomic explanation for acupoint selectivity and specificity. They tell us the acupuncture parameters, so where to go, how deep to go, how strong the intensity should be.”

Dr. Leena Mathew, a physician in Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center explains that “acupuncture is a “retrospective science, going on for 3,000 years. We know it works, we just don’t know why. It’s very hard to translate into Western language.” Scientists are still trying to understand why acupuncture has been shown to work. One of the many theories is that the practice has an effect on the body’s stress response system, or the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. This may be why after a treatment of acupuncture, patients experience lower stress and anxiety levels. Another theory about the healing power of acupuncture is connected to human touch. It’s theorized that by simply having another human place an intentioned touch, it can do a lot to help alleviate pain.